Engineering Your Way to Firefighter Safety

The main principle of engineering is critical thinking. During my engineering education, I spent plenty of time and money developing this skill.

You probably don't have an engineer on staff, but most fire officials perform engineering work every day without realizing it. Don't get your PE stamp out just yet; here are some tips and tricks to help with your everyday decisions to keep your first responders safe.

There are no solutions without problems – I can't repeat it enough. Time and again, people come in with a grand solution, only to find out there wasn't a problem in the first place.

Always identify the problem, then work to find a way to address it. This is classic scientific method, but our fast-paced society wants answers now, not later. Again, identify the problem and then find a solution.

Ask questions – I recently had someone ask me if there were any issues with a portable oven and stove in their school building. I was picturing a standard electric stove/oven combo typical in a studio apartment. A few issues there, but nothing we couldn't overcome.

As I asked more questions, I found they intended to use a single, nonlisted, butane burner for the stove and a residential grade toaster oven on a cart.

Butane in a school? I don't think so.

The more questions you ask, the better picture you have in your mind of what's happening. In my butane scenario, I had them email me the product information so I could look into it further. This allows you time to do your research without the pressure of the customer on the phone.

Don't assume anything – We have a tendency to assume we know what goes on in a building. This isn't always the case. If you haven't asked any questions, you are likely assuming too much.

Document – Don't just document; document as if you have never heard of the subject before.

Ever read a note in your handwriting but have no idea what it means or what it pertains to? Now imagine looking at documentation from a predecessor about an approval given at a building.

Give yourself and those in your position in the future the benefit of good documentation. This could mean a lengthy engineering report or a simple email documenting a phone conversation.

Act dumb – You're an expert in your field, but not necessarily your customer's. Although you may have the word chief, captain, inspector or engineer in your title, you don't know the inner workings of today's manufacturing processes. Let the customer explain their process to you thoroughly and refer back to the section, "Ask Questions."

Educate – How are you supposed to act dumb and educate all at the same time? Just as you're not an expert in their field, they're not an expert in yours. Our lingo doesn't always translate to layman's terms. Know your audience and educate as necessary.

Don't trust everything you hear – Even if it did come from an engineer. Engineers are people too; they make mistakes just like everyone else.

They shouldn't put their stamp on anything they aren't familiar with, but it does happen. I have been in many preconstruction meetings where the architect or engineer across from me heard something from the owner (their client) for the very first time.

Use your friend Google – The internet has a wealth of resources that are highly reliable—and some not so much. Wikipedia is not a dependable source of information. The content is created by anyone who cares to do so.

Look for at least a handful of corroborating evidence before you believe what you see. Many articles even contradict one another.

Ask around – Just because I'm a fire-protection engineer doesn't mean I have all the answers. If the customer says they did something similar in Boston, I call Boston. If I have a question about what a firefighter would really do in XYZ situation, I ask one.

There's no shame in not having all the answers and there is no need to recreate the wheel. I love this community of professionals because they'll help you with whatever you need.

Whenever you're uncomfortable, don't give a green light. Your first responders' safety depends on it. Continue to ask questions and acquire information until you're satisfied. This may mean requiring the customer to hire a professional. Besides day-to-day operations, a building has to serve three purposes: emergency responder safety, occupant safety and property protection.

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