In this, my last column for Plumbing Engineer, I wish to describe my journey as a fire protection engineer and give some recognition to several of those who lent a hand or gave some good direction along the way.
In high school, though good in math and sciences, I was not quite sure what I could do with that knowledge. Regarding math, no one ever mentioned to me about the possibility of being an engineer. With science, there seemed to be many obvious career options, including medicine.
I only applied to one college — the University of Maryland. Not so much because it was where I wanted to go but because everyone else applied to go there. It helped that the College Park campus was only 30 minutes from my home in Suitland, Md.
So when the time came to put some kind of major down, I put down pre-pharmacy. Through my first two years in school, my major morphed into pre-medicine and I began taking many courses in biology.
From Pre-Med to Fire Protection Engineer
My best friend since our family moved from southeast Washington to Suitland in 1962, Larry Nyers pretty much always knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a firefighter. As soon as Larry turned 16, he joined the Bradbury Heights Volunteer Fire Department (Company 17) in Prince Georges County Md. He often coaxed me to join but I never took his urgings seriously until my freshman year in college.
Being in pre-med, I figured some experience riding the ambulance would help me when the time came to apply to medical school. At age 19, I joined the Silver Hill Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad (Company 29) to which Larry had since transferred. Larry is what I call a fireman’s fireman. If you look up firefighter in the dictionary, you will see a picture of Larry. Among the many lives he saved in his still ongoing career, he revived a family’s pet dog he had rescued from a house fire using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
In those days, volunteers had to train as both a firefighter and an ambulance technician. Turns out riding fire trucks was a lot cooler to me than riding the ambulance, so my interest began to shift.
Meanwhile, back at college, I found the constant memorization required to pass exams in subjects such as comparative vertebrate morphology was no fun. One of the guys across the hall in our dorm was studying to be a civil engineer and had homework that involved problem-solving. That type of study seemed much more interesting than spending hours upon hours memorizing the names of all the muscles in some part of the human anatomy. I began to think maybe engineering was the thing for me.
Now it just so happens that the University of Maryland’s engineering college had a specialty engineering program — the Fire Protection Engineering Curriculum. It was not an ABET-accredited engineering program at the time (the program received accreditation during my senior year) but it seemed to be a good opportunity to combine my interest in firefighting and engineering. Near the end of my sophomore year, I set up an appointment to meet with the chairman of the program.
Dr. John L. Bryan welcomed me into his office and we chatted for a while. He looked at my hastily handwritten “transcript” and told me that if I joined the program in the fall and did well, he would find me a scholarship starting in the spring.
That did it for me. I left Dr. Bryan’s office convinced to change to engineering. True to his word, after one semester in the program, he arranged for me to receive a full-tuition scholarship from the Maryland State Volunteer Fireman’s Association through graduation.
Dr. Bryan was the first person at the university who showed an interest in me and I will never forget it. Of course, Prof was a tremendous mentor to many students in the program (see my Plumbing Engineer column, “Prof,” in the December 2014 issue).
Phil DiNenno was a friend and fellow student; not a mentor in the usual sense, though he definitely was someone I looked up to. We went separate ways after graduation but I followed his career and always admired him for his accomplishments and the positive impact he had on the profession (see my column, “Fire Gods,” September 2013). When this magazine was looking for a replacement for the fire protection column in 2009, it was Phil who recommended me as the replacement to Morgan Hurley, who at that time was the Society of Fire Protection Engineers’ technical director. I only found this out at Phil’s funeral in 2013.
During my second junior year in college (after switching majors I was now on the five-year plan) I worked part-time as an engineering intern at the Center for Fire Research at the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). My supervisor was Harold E. (Bud) Nelson. Bud oversaw a group whose job it was to take the basic research in fire (such as a study that took over one thousand data points on the ignition of a match head) and transfer it to an applied use.
Part of Bud’s job was to convince those with the money only interested in funding applied research projects to spare a dime for basic research. He happened to brilliant at it. Bud developed many engineering tools still in use today. He was the developer of the goal-oriented systems approach to fire protection engineering while running the FPE ground at the GSA. This approach was a forerunner of what we now call performance-based design.
I was never the best-dressed student intern and one day Bud called me his “sartorial splendor.” Had to look that one up.
While at NIST, Bud also developed the Fire Safety Evaluation System that is used extensively in all manner of occupancies, including health care and detention. But this was not the thing I value most from knowing him. It was later after I began working as an engineer-in-training with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Pearl Harbor (once known as PACDIV).
While attending a Dallas National Fire Protection Association conference in 1980, Bud gave me some advice. He told me not to stay out in Hawaii too long because I would get lost, meaning lost to the profession. To me, this was a challenge. Since then, I have worked hard to make sure I did not “get lost in Hawaii.”
Before arriving in Hawaii, I spent the first nine months of my career as an engineer-in-training at the Chesapeake Division of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard (once known, but now no longer exists, as CHESDIV). Here I had two great first bosses: Rick Rice and later Bob DiAngelo. Rick later became the head of the fire protection engineering program at NAVFAC; Bob later became the chief fire protection engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Both set me on the right path to be a competent fire protection engineer and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).
Also at CHESDIV was Frank Caldwell, head of the design division and, coincidently, the father of another fire protection engineering peer, Carol Caldwell. Frank taught me one of those never-to-forget life lessons: No one is irreplaceable.
In early 1979, Roger Parlee, the head of the NAVFAC FPE group in Pearl Harbor, came to Washington seeking young recruits to transfer out to Hawaii to help with the large amount of work developing in the Pacific. So, in April 1979, I transferred out to Pearl Harbor, a great opportunity to “travel the world” and get unstuck from Suitland. Roger was my immediate supervisor and he always took good care of me.
While at PACDIV, I had the privilege of working under a very experienced FPE, Joe Condlin. Joe came to Hawaii a few years before I did, having worked in the old NAVFAC office at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, once called NORTHDIV. Before NAVFAC, he had been a field engineer with Factory Mutual in Philadelphia. I learned much about engineering from Joe but what I valued most was gaining some of his passion for the profession and the way he would approach solving fire protection problems.
Joe was a classic AHJ. Anyone trying to BS him would end up getting nowhere. But if you approached him honestly about a real problem that needed a special solution and were able to get through the total stonewall he would put up during your first 15 minutes with him, he would begin to soften his attitude and truly try to work out an equitable solution to the most difficult of issues. I think those stonewall tactics were Joe’s way of determining whether the person he was dealing with was someone he could trust. Not only a great mentor but a true friend.
In 1985, I left the federal civil service, deciding to try my hand in the private sector. I worked out an arrangement with a local mechanical engineering consultant, becoming the in-house fire protection engineering consultant for Benjamin S. Notkin Inc., a Seattle based mechanical engineering firm that had recently opened an office in Honolulu. Ben Notkin offered to teach me the business in return for helping his staff develop fire protection engineering expertise.
In addition to his skills as an engineer, Ben knew how to market. He willingly taught me a wide range of marketing skills, including developing a marketing plan, preparing marketing materials, client relations, interviewing techniques and more.
After more than 40 years in the business, I find there are still opportunities to learn from great people. Of late that has come from the leadership of Coffman Engineers Inc. — most importantly, its founder Dave Coffman, CEO Dave Ruff and Bob Libby, head of the fire protection engineering group.
Many others have helped me along the way, including Chris Jelenewicz, Josh Elvove, Matt Chibarro, Jim Lathrop, Ray Grill, Jim Milke, Ed Danziger, Cathy Stashak, Bob Caputo, Tom Gray, D. Peter Lund, Kathleen Almand — and many more.
I want to thank the editors of this magazine with whom I have worked these past 10 years: John Mesenbrink, Jim Schneider, Ashlei Williams, Sarah Cimarusti, Sharon Rehana and Kelly Faloon. I appreciate all their gentle reminders of upcoming deadlines, cutting me slack for my run-on sentences and over-abundance of commas, and giving me just enough freedom (or rope) to occasionally put some controversial thoughts in front of the readers.
And thanks to you, the readers, for taking your valuable time to read a column and for occasionally writing to let me know that someone actually read a column once in a while.
I took on this column for many reasons. A strong craving for recognition, to prove that I could do it, but there were other reasons. To help others avoid the same engineering mistakes I made, to give the readers a sense of our history and tradition, as well as my take on fire protection engineering. Ben Notkin once asked me, when preparing to hire my replacement, what qualities I would recommend this FPE have. I told him that the most important quality for this person would be to have a passion for his or her work.
It is a truly a blessing to have a job you really enjoy (except maybe for Monday mornings), one that occasionally gets your motor running and your heart pumping, and one in which you know that what you do is of service.
I hope some of that passion came through in these columns.
Gotta go now, there’s a rerun of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” on that I haven’t seen. Aloha!