The Difference Between Engineers and Fire Engineers

13thSeptember 2021
By Jeff Anderson

Fun fact for your next trivia night: the term “engineer” derives from Medieval Latin and the word “ingeniare”, which means to design or devise. Ever since the wheel was invented (and even before that), humans have been devising clever inventions, designed to astound, improve, or carry out a function that too often we all take for granted – or in the case of the Wonders of the world, leave society in awe.

 

At its most rudimentary level, Engineering is a broad-based interdisciplinary field combining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and is the systematic application of knowledge and experience which seeks to devise designs that tackle problems and protect and further lives in the built environment. As such, engineering exists to solve problems and involves the process of taking an issue and applying mechanical thoughts, processes and technologies in a way that leads to better outcomes – which can range from something being faster, lighter, stronger, more durable, more useful, better to look at and so much more. In fact, it seems that imagination is the only thing that may impact the ongoing advancements led by engineers.

The general field of Engineering

Today, engineers apply well-grounded and established scientific principles and cutting-edge advancements to design, fabricate, improve, operate and maintain all manner of devices, structures, systems, and processes.

 

It may be a simplification to some extent, however, whilst scientists and inventors are the professions taking the credit for innovation and novel concepts, it is as often as not engineers who apply science and math who are instrumental in turning those innovative ideas into reality.

The field of Engineering, however, is as vast as the field of medicine in many different ways. Engineering encompasses practices such as structural engineers, civil engineers, fire engineers, façade engineers, design engineers, hydraulic engineers and many other sub-specialties.  Often, these different specialties have considerable overlap among them hence the reason why engineers need to have a general understanding in different areas of engineering other than their specialty. For instance, a civil engineer needs to understand concepts of structural engineering, a structural engineer needs to apply principles of fire engineering, and so forth

 

What is fire engineering?

For regular readers of our blog, you will know that fire protection is quite possibly one of the most important investments and areas of critical concern in any building construction project. It is very important and indeed legislated under the Building Code of Australia, that every modern building be designed and equipped to provide ample time for its occupants to escape in the event of a fire.

 

The role of Fire engineering is to apply the principles of science and engineering to develop systems and frameworks that protect people and their environment from destructive fire. These incorporate:

  • analysis of fire risks and hazards
  • appropriate design, construction, arrangement, and utilisation of buildings to mitigate fire damage
  • materials, industrial processes, structures, and transportation systems
  • planning, designing, establishment and maintenance of fire detection, suppression and communication systems, and
  • post/fire examination, investigation and analysis.

With roots in fire engineering spanning back to Emperor Nero who wanted cities built with space to allow egress and for fires to be controlled, through to more modern science led by Harvard professors such as Howard Wilson Emmons who is often referred to as the father of modern fire science, the application of knowledge has led to significant advancement in fire engineering, so much so, that the core objective has since been refined to limiting a fire to its object or room of origin.

 

The paradox of all this, is that although our field of expertise has been around for a long time, it is still erroneously viewed as somewhat new and was not always considered at all. Interestingly, we are still finding it is sadly not that uncommon for members of our team to still find themselves working with other professionals on fire-safety designs where the other party has not worked with a fire engineer before.

Occasionally this absence of past involvement implies that the expertise of fire engineers is not always properly utilised at the most appropriate time – meaning fire rating is often left till late in the build process, leading to increases in cost, errors and workarounds. When left too late, it leads to retrospective engagement of fire engineers, with the task of fixing to a certain standard instead of designing an optimal outcome.

While fire engineers such as our team, can try to assist, these circumstances pose a great challenge due to the reduction of the level of flexibility in the design.

 

Fire protection engineers

Suffice to say, fire engineering crosses a range of disciplines. At Permax we recognize that the application of theory is one thing, but real-life situations often dictate the need for a more versatile solution. Given this, we have assembled a team of fire engineers, applicators and other building trades with backgrounds in other construction fields so that we can combine our knowledge in such a way that the solutions and information we share is practical as much as it is optimal.

 

Our team, however, have extensive backgrounds in different aspects of fire engineering, ranging from structural considerations to structural fire protection, and how different materials react to fire with relevant timescales. Our team is one we are very proud of (We will complete a dedicated blog on our team in the next weeks).

Fire engineering also extends to other aspects of fire including smoke control, where comprehension of mechanical engineering is necessary. The profession means they hone their abilities and skills based on engineering training with to a scientific understanding of the behaviour of; smoke, humans during exposure to fires, and how protection systems such as; fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and fire detection work.

Equivalent parallels can be drawn with most construction and engineering disciplines, which again leads to the unsurprising fact that the industry comprises a combination of backgrounds.

 

If simplified, the overarching job of a fire engineer is to assist with protecting life, property and the wider environment from the risk of fire. In their day-to-day, they work with building and construction project teams; architects, structural and services engineers and the building contractor to ensure that the building’s fire safety provisions meet the building code and further satisfy the objectives of the building owner.

 

Fire safety engineering roles are closely related to those of fire safety consultants, who lead and conduct fire risk assessments that are legally required on non-private dwelling places, and fire investigators, who are tasked with determining the cause of a fire. Some of the aspects of these jobs may form their tasks depending on the nature of their employer and its remit.

 

Additionally, they advise building owners, development firms and architects on the most ideal building approaches that maintain compliance with building codes and other relevant statutory requirements.

 

In a nutshell, the duties of a fire service engineer typically include but are not limited to:

  • Identification of possible fire-related risks to reduce or eliminate them
  • developing a fire strategy that includes; designs, making calculations, charts and/or diagrams to assist with forestalling fire or its spread
  • considering the structural integrity of a building and human conduct in order to incorporate appropriate fire safety procedures into designs – such as sprinkler systems, emergency exits, smoke and fire alarms – to limit the danger of injury and loss of life in the event of a fire
  • providing recommendations for the proper materials to be used in the construction or refurbishment of a building
  • keeping up to date with regulations and legislation
  • using modelling software to conduct simulations and determine load and how this changes during a fire
  • working with project/construction teams on sites to advise on the installation or implementation of the proper designs
  • providing advice that critically feeds into decisions on; safe building occupancy levels, fire evacuation plans and so forth
  • writing fire strategy reports
  • when required, liaise with authorities and/or statutory bodies if and as required
  • whenever required, acting as specialists and expert witnesses in court and legal proceedings.

 

If you have any questions, would like any assistance, or want to chat with us about your fire rating requirements, please get in touch with us, we’d be very happy to help.

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