Students’ Corner: Getting in the “Game” of Fire Protection Code Consulting

Posted: May 26, 2015 in Fire Protection
Tags: , , ,

by: Binyamin Besser

Fire Protection Code ConsultingTo be honest, fire protection engineering was not my first career choice. Before going to college I had not known that there was such a thing simply because it never crossed my mind. I fell into the major and profession due to some odd circumstances that made it more financially wise (because a bachelor’s degree costs an exorbitant amount of money in the first place). I was apprehensive coming into the profession since I had known so little about it, and since the little I learned in the beginning was just referencing books. That first year, I mostly heard about NFPA codes and standards. I do not find, literally, pounds of reference material and code books to be particularly enthralling.

I thought that I might go into the research and testing side of fire protection, being impressed and mystified by the videos and images of massive glowing flames consuming fuel in a complex test apparatus. However, as with most things, ads do not properly represent the market. Though large tests and complex, creative apparatuses exist, they are not as prevalent or accessible as one might think. I did do some testing in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering’s Fire Testing and Evaluation Center (FireTEC) and was exposed to the tedium of repetitive small testing.

After trying my hand at some testing, I thought I should look into that which I dismissed off hand, code consulting. For most of my peers, building consulting is a large part of our profession that we are not excited about doing. The task of knowing the extensive volumes of codes for the plethora of building types, occupancies, and specific area usages with their associated hazards seems like it would generate mental sloth. Since my first year in fire protection engineering, I had only some design work with the building codes in class, but became more interested in that side of the field only recently. I realized my interest was in puzzles.

Designing and fitting a building with a fire protection system is much like a puzzle. Not a 1000 piece puzzle with an obscure picture on it. Fire protection system design is a mental puzzle like Sudoku, but perhaps closer to a board game as well. The board changes for every project but the rules stay constant. The rules obviously are the codes and standards and the “game board” is the building. The rules are rigid and complex, but orderly, and the puzzle is just fitting the rules to the board. This is not the first time that professionals have used a game to solve a serious issue. The game “Foldit”, which is used to make protein structures and was played by non-scientists, has a set of rigid rules in how bonds could be formed. The game was created by scientists, but played and used by non-professionals to solve the structure of an enzyme involved in the reproduction of HIV. I am not suggesting that the fire protection profession should make an online game, but we should try to remove the mundaneness from working with fire protection codes. Code consulting and building design is such a large part of our profession, but it seems that novices in fire protection shy away from it to a degree.

There is something to be said about the draw of the more intriguing aspects of fire protection, including testing, research, and fire and explosion investigation. But we cannot forget our roots. Fire protection began with building design and the safety of people occupying those buildings. All of these aspects are aimed at the goal of safety. Testing materials allows us to determine how long it is safe for different constructions, materials, and systems to be burning. The plethora of research opportunities are used to invent new testing procedures, safety methods, and to pinpoint the science and behavior of fire. Fire and explosion investigation is used in the pursuit of justice and to insure that what has happened will not happen again.

We students tend to gravitate to the more flashy (or flashover) side of fire protection, as it can be more enticing to be entertained by mystifying fires nearly out of control, but still being managed by the experiment or apparatus that contains it. More appropriately, this representation of that side of our profession, I think, is not authentic of either the type of work done or the prevalence of that work. I feel that students are given this imagery as a “hook” to be excited, but to be better prepared for the “real world” there should be an effort to make the code consulting side more interesting to learn. I suppose time will only tell whether I am correct in my thoughts. I am, after all, only starting out.

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