Program Feature: Fire Protection Engineering

Daid Morrisset

David Morrisset, fire protection engineering graduate student, 
works in the engines lab.

Each year, more Californians are affected by the devastating effects of wildfires. Consider the reality: 10 of the top 20 most-destructive fires in the state have occurred in the past five years. The Cal Poly Fire Protection Engineering Master’s Program is training students to prevent and combat these destructive hazards.

Cal Poly is only one of three schools in the nation offering this graduate degree — and is the only program of its kind on the West Coast. The program allows students to attend classes online and on their own time, which is helpful for working professionals. Since its launch in the fall of 2010, some 100 students have graduated.

Every design decision, whether for a building or a product, becomes critical when considering the hazards of wildland fires. These master’s students are taught to consider how every design choice also can enhance fire survivability.

“Most people can go about their day without realizing how many fire hazards are prevalent,” said Richard Emberley, a fire protection engineering assistant professor. “And I think because of this, the common misconception about this field is that it doesn’t exist.” 

Most people can go about their day without realizing how many fire hazards are prevalent and I think because of this, the common misconception about this field is that it doesn’t exist

— Richard Emberley

Mechanical engineering students are well-trained to pursue this career path, Emberley said. At the core of fire protection engineering is material properties, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer that are all taught in the mechanical engineering core curriculum.

Fire protection engineering encompasses proactive spatial designs to protect occupants, the building and even the property. While many fire safety strategies used — alarm and detection, compartmentation, evacuation, suppression and structural integrity — apply to building safety, Emberley said they also can be applied to protect building occupants and the facility site as well.

Fire protection involves looking at a system holistically from the direct hazards, to the community it affects and even the condition it’s in, he said. Students learn to think about how even cultural norms within a community affect how people react in a fire.

A new concern for today’s fire protection engineers includes hazards related to improved technology. As companies and industry innovate, engineers must also develop new ways to protect products and the people who use them. And time has shown that there is no one-blanket solution for emerging technologies. 

As a result, fire protection engineers must innovate with the times.

“Companies are continuing to optimize without thinking of the potential fire hazards. And because of this we are always trying to play catch up and are more years behind than we should be,” said Emberley.

For more information about the Cal Poly Fire Protection Engineering Master’s Program, visit fpe.calpoly.edu.

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