On Oct. 7, 2023, I attended a retirement celebration for James A. Milke, Ph.D., PE, professor and chair of the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Department of Fire Protection Engineering (FPE). Jim’s first job with the university was as a researcher working with UMD Professor Jack Watts in November 1977.
Forty-six years later, he retired as the department chair, having served in that role for 12 years. The number of fire protection engineering students positively affected by his teaching and influence numbers in the thousands.
I first got to know Jim in 1980 when I transferred to UMD to pursue a degree in fire protection engineering, and I have cherished his friendship ever since. He was very helpful when correcting transfer credits from other institutions that were not applied to my transcript correctly or understanding a very technical topic/issue. Jim and his warm personality quickly made him one of the most popular professors at the university.
And he is not only a brainiac who likes fire — no, he got into the profession on the manual suppression side by becoming a volunteer firefighter. Fighting fire and then studying fire dynamics gives one an appreciation for the science like no other!
Celebrating an FPE Icon
I was asked to say a few words at the retirement celebration; this is what I told the crowd:
“OK, my job in the next four minutes is to give you some flavor of what it was like to be a student in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering in the 1980s and, specifically, what it was like to receive instruction from Jim Milke. Jim, I tried to channel my former student self — so, in true student fashion, I didn’t start to put my remarks together until about 11:30 last night.
“The 1980s in the FPE department was when the full-time faculty transitioned from Professor Bryan, Dr. Harry Hickey and Jack Watts to Professor Bryan, Dr. Hickey and Jim Milke. Jim was only a little bit older than we students were, which I feel gave us a special connection with him. He was young, bright, hip. He knew his stuff; we all wanted to be like Jim Milke.
“Jim was extremely engaging and had this uncanny ability to uncomplicate complicated engineering concepts. Sometimes, it was not what he said but how he said it. Of course, he would have charts or graphs to illustrate his point, but it was his ability to add inflection or tie the concepts to something that you could feel inside.
“When Jim was teaching us the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code, he talked about stair riser and tread dimensions. When he said tread, he simulated walking up a stair and as he stepped, he said, ‘Tread, like don’t tread on me.’”
“And Jim was great with his dead-pan approach. Even in his class ‘Heat Transfer for Fire Protection Engineers,’ Jim would have our undivided attention. I remember him discussing luminous and nonluminous flames, and he made the class fun. When Jim gave us a problem to solve — such as radiant critical flux to a target — we would calculate the answer. However, if we didn’t opine on what that numerical answer meant, Jim would write on your paper, “Sooooo… .”
“As a student, I was in awe of the fire research presented in the peer-reviewed periodical Fire Technology. One day, I was reading it in the FPE student lounge, and there was an article by Jim Milke examining exposed plastic fire sprinkler pipe and whether a fire would breach the pipe wall. Jim looked at heat transfer to the pipe and hoop stresses on the pipe from the water pressure. He concluded that if a sprinkler activated, the heat transfer due to waterflow would prevent the pipe from a breach.
“I headed down to talk to Jim during his office hours, and after we finished discussing something from class, I told him I had read his article. I said, ‘Jim, is this the first time you have been published in Fire Technology?’ Jim paused and then said, ‘This year.’ I walked away, hanging my head.
“Jim, you taught us cutting-edge fire research from some of the biggest names in the biz, such as David Rashbash, Hsiang-Cheng Kung, T.T. Lie, Albert Steiner, T.Z. Harmathy, Margaret Law, B.R. Morton/G. Taylor/J.S. Turner, E.G. Butcher and A.C. Parnell, Brady Williamson, Howard Edmonds, Cheng Yao, Gunnar Heskestad, Robert Bill and Bud Nelson. Now your name is up there with the best of them.
“Everyone in the U.S. and those in many other countries can thank Jim for being safer in buildings, other structures and even their own homes because of his work in fire protection engineering.
“How is it even possible for one man to single-handedly affect the fire and life safety of hundreds of millions of people where they work, live and play? By being a staunch supporter, leader, innovator, practitioner, researcher, mentor and teacher to hundreds of fire protection engineers.
“They, in turn, go out into the world and become leaders in the same honorable endeavor and take this highly specialized engineering discipline to the next level. These graduates mentor successive generations of fire protection engineers using the principles instilled by you.
“Jim, many people are here tonight, and they are not here to vote on changes to some code or standard, they are not here because they couldn’t get a dinner reservation at their favorite restaurant. No, they are here because they respect you, admire you, love you, they appreciate what you have done for the profession or what you have done for them and their careers. Back when I had the pleasure of sitting in one of your classes, my classmates and I would say, ‘The Milke Man delivers,’ and you did.
“Jim, I think I speak for everyone here when I say you are the brightest star in the Milke Way!”
Jim Milke’s Legacy
I could list the accomplishments of Dr. Milke, but magazines have limited space, and his list is very, very long. So here is an abbreviated list of his awards: seven best paper awards, the Robert Kent Outstanding Teaching Award (1994), the John J. Ahern President’s Award bestowed by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE, 1995), the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Person of the Year (2011), the SFPE Arthur B. Guise Medal (2016), the NFPA Distinguished Service Award (2023), and the 2023 Henry S. Parmelee Award from the American Fire Sprinkler Association.
Anyone who has studied smoke control or the human response to fire knows the Milke name. All you need to look at are technical works such as the “Handbook of Smoke Control Engineering” or NFPA 92 Standard for Smoke Control Systems — his fingerprints are all over those documents. Jim is an expert in so many areas of fire protection engineering that the SFPE’s Greater Atlanta Chapter has featured him in a majority of their past 19 Fire Safety Conferences & Expos, as he can teach almost any fire protection subject.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency team that studied what had gone wrong structurally in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, used Jim Milke to help them figure it out. Once asked about that study, he replied: “It was incredibly difficult but meaningful work, and I appreciated being called to such a duty. This is why engineering is so important. We, all of us, matter.”
Following these ideals, Jim and his wife, Judy, created the Dr. James A. Milke Endowed Scholarship in Fire Protection Engineering (https://go.umd.edu/4164t8l) at the University of Maryland. The master of ceremonies at the retirement event, Bill Koffel of Koffel Associates, announced that donations and the event itself raised almost $18,000 to help with the startup of the scholarship.
I was able to attend Jim’s retirement celebration to personally thank him for what he has done for me. I hope this column helps thank him (in one small way) for what he has done for the profession.
Tom Gardner is a senior vice president/director of business development with the Harrington Group. He is a registered Professional Engineer (fire protection engineering) in 17 states and has more than 43 years of experience. Gardner is the past chair of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers’ Engineering Education Committee, past chair of the National Fire Protection Association’s Health Care Section, and is an SFPE Fellow.