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The other side of fire safety

Responsibility, ethics and professionalism in fire safety, fundamental elements in the correct development of this profession.

By Jaime A. Moncada*

In a region where the competent authority has little impact on the quality of the design, installation and maintenance of fire installations and where, generally speaking, the insurer does not yet have the ability to fill this gap, the user, read the company that decides to buy a fire safety system, has limited ways of knowing if he is making the right decision.

Therefore, the only way to ensure acceptable levels of fire safety is if the engineer and installer of these systems take their job with due responsibility, ethics and professionalism. However, it is common to hear among engineers and installers who have the infrastructure and experience to ensure acceptable levels of fire protection, that it is often difficult to compete in a market like ours, where individuals and companies without knowledge of our technology, or simply without scruples, are always interested in winning the project by lowering the quality of the installation.

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Fire safety systems that are poorly installed and do not meet acceptable levels of fire protection affect us all. First, the user, because he does not get an acceptable level of security, even if he has already spent money on fire protection. It also loses society, insurance companies and local authorities, as minimum levels of protection have not been obtained. The manufacturer/installer loses, because in an environment without a minimum level of professionalism, competition between bidders turns into price competition and the winning proposal probably does not include enough equipment for the system to be truly effective. And fire protection engineers lose, because it is difficult for them to compete with designers who have not studied our technology, nor understand the complexity of this type of engineering.

Most engineers and consultants who practice fire protection in Latin America are self-taught. Many, but many of them have sought to professionalize by taking courses, certifying themselves in different entities, and taking their work with responsibility, ethics and professionalism. I was very lucky to start in this medium on the right foot, not only deciding to follow in the footsteps of my extraordinary father, but also having the opportunity to study fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland (UMD), one of the most recognized universities, and then working at Rolf Jensen & Associates (RJA), the most famous consultant in fire protection engineering. At UMD and RJA I was under the mentorship of amazing engineers, and I would like to mention two of them who are no longer with us.

On October 13, 2014, Dr. John L. Bryan, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland died in Frederick, Maryland at age 87. "Prof" as we affectionately called him all his pupils, was the founder of the fire protection engineering career at UMD, in 1956, and then was its rector until 1993. When my father and mother took me and Brother Santiago (q.e.p.d.) to visit this University in 1981 for the first time, with the intention of registering there, Prof received us in his office and we realized that we were about to join a very special fraternity. My brother and I graduated from that university in 1985.

Prof Bryan was an unforgettable person for all his students. By the time we entered one of his classes, he had already filled the board with extensive notes about the day's lesson, which had been written in exquisite calligraphy. After discovering this, I always arrived as early as he did in the classroom, because for me, with my pedestrian English of that time, it was a blessing from God to have that information beforehand and then hear his expert explanation.  

Prof had a sarcastic sense of humor as well as a photographic memory. When he reviewed the tests or reports of our fire laboratory practices and realized that we were "bluffing" in our answers, he would put next to the answer the drawing of a snowman, in reference to a "snow job", which in colloquial English means that we were making an effort to deceive him. His students commented not on the grade we had obtained, but on whether we had received snowmen. I also remember an event many years later, commemorating 30 years of the fire engineering career, where he introduced hundreds of graduates to the audience by their full names, including information from where they worked at the time, all from memory.

The recognitions that Prof Bryan received during his career as a fire protection engineer are very extensive. He was Chairman of the Standards Council and Chairman of the NFPA Board of Directors. He received the highest recognitions from the NFPA and SFPE. From 1966 he actively participated in technical committees of NFPA 101 and his area of greatest technical recognition was his study of human behavior during fires. He was the one who discovered the "myth of panic"1 in the fires. But in my opinion his main achievement was to pass on what he knew, in a gentle, sympathetic and selfless way, to all of us who were lucky enough to be his students. He is a great example.

The second person I was referring to earlier is Rolf H. Jensen, EP, who died at age 73 on August 13, 2002. Rolf graduated as a fire protection engineer in 1951 from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. He was technical manager at Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and then, for 10 years, was professor and dean of the fire protection engineering program at IIT. In 1969, after investigating the iconic McCormick Place Convention Center fire in Chicago, he founded RJA, a fire protection engineering consulting firm that has become over the years the most important in the world, today called Jensen Hughes.
Among his many achievements are the development of the concept of "equivalent solutions" to what is strictly required by fire safety codes, pushed the idea of increasing the distance of travel to an exit when there are automatic sprinklers, and suggested for the first time the use of rapid response sprinklers.  

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I worked for his company for 15 years and had the honor of collaborating directly with him in the analysis of several large fires in Puerto Rico. He always said, "Worry about your profession and your clients." Following his example I understood that the canon of ethics that a fire engineer follows has to be the highest, since our actions have to do with the safety of the people. He never let RJA represent any equipment or product, and he never allowed us to lobby, on behalf of industrial organizations. In addition, he instilled in me the responsibility that we all have to donate our time and knowledge to our profession. He, knowing the volunteer work that my father had been doing, encouraged me to work with the NFPA in the development of our profession in Latin America.

Rolf was very clear that a profession as small and technical as fire safety requires our voluntary support to be able to develop. He served on more than 60 technical committees and chaired the NFPA 13 committee on automatic sprinklers for 37 years. His example of service and professionalism is indelible.

Why do I mention all this? Because I am convinced that without responsibility, ethics and professionalism we will not take our industry forward. Also, because those of us who are older than those who have left, have a responsibility to teach, to share what we know, to give back what our profession has given us, and to participate as volunteers in committees and technical forums so that the new generations have it a little clearer.

Footnote 1: NFPA Journal Latinoamericano, "Chaos or Panic – What Happens During the Evacuation Process in a Fire," J. A. Moncada, June 2005.

* Jaime A. Moncada, PE is a director of International Fire Safety Consulting (IFSC), a fire protection engineering consulting firm based in Washington, DC. and with offices in Latin America.  He is a fire protection engineer graduated from the University of Maryland, co-editor of the NFPA Fire Protection Manual, Vice President of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE [email protected]). 

Duván Chaverra Agudelo
Author: Duván Chaverra Agudelo
Jefe Editorial en Latin Press, Inc,.
Comunicador Social y Periodista con experiencia de más de 16 años en medios de comunicación. Apasionado por la tecnología y por esta industria. [email protected]

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