Type ‘fire engineer’, into the Australian Government’s Job Outlook website and the closest result you get is ‘fire and emergency services’, (i.e. fire fighters).

Type ‘engineer’, and you get 49 different classifications of jobs. This includes everything from civil engineering to mechanical engineering to tool makers, procurement managers, software programmers, sheet metal workers, performing arts technicians, motor mechanics and ICT support staff.

But you will not find anything related to fire engineering or fire engineers.

Bottom line, the Australian Government does not consider fire engineering to be a career or profession worthy of inclusion in guidance material provided to young people.

Yet fire engineers design critical safety aspects of the buildings in which we live, work and play.

The Federal Government is not alone in its modest view of fire engineering.

In a recent presentation at a conference hosted by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) in Melbourne last month, Peter Johnson, Principal – Fire Safety Engineering at Arup, outlined the challenges and opportunities for the fire engineering profession in Australia.

Johnson described an assessment of the current state of the fire safety engineering profession given by Professor Jose Torero, Head of UCL Department of Civil, Environmental, Geomatic & Environmental Engineering at University College London and Brian Meacham, President of the Society of Fire Engineers in the United States. Both have looked closely at the profession’s standing globally.

“Basically, what they have concluded is that we don’t have a proper fire safety engineering profession at the moment,” Johnson said.

“They describe it more like a trade. We are not like doctors, lawyers and structural engineers in the same way in our profession.”

According to Johnson, fire engineering stands at a crossroads.

Over recent decades, the environment surrounding fire safety in buildings has evolved amid a move toward a performance based approach in the National Construction Code (NCC), introduction of private certification and the emergence of new building materials and technologies.

Simultaneously, however, the profession has many shortcomings. With some courses having barely changed in twenty years, education programs have not developed as rapidly should have been the case and competencies of fire engineers are not as they should be. Accreditation schemes fall short of either world or Australian best practice. Regulation is lax – in one state (Western Australia), anyone can do fire safety design. Enforcement is diabolical. In his own case, Johnson has held registration as a fire safety engineer for more than twenty years across multiple jurisdictions. Never once has anyone checked his ability to either write reports or perform analysis.

All this, Johnson says, has limited the attractiveness of fire engineering as a career among young people – many of whom question the status of fire engineering as a profession.

He says the upshot is that people are performing fire safety design without having the capabilities to do so. Indeed, an online survey involving more than 400 respondents from 41 countries which Mecham and several international peers conducted in late 2016 and early 2017 revealed some startling findings. When asked whether or not only qualified fire safety engineers were undertaking fire safety design, far less than half of all respondents across most countries answered in the affirmative. In Australia, only 22 percent of respondents indicated that fire safety design was always being undertaken by fire safety engineers.

Given this, he says recent fire safety challenges within buildings are not surprising.

Nevertheless, Johnson says there are opportunities for these issues to be addressed following July’s agreement by the Building Ministers Forum to adopt a nationally consistent approach toward implementing the 24 recommendations contained in the Building Confidence report prepared in 2018 by Professor Peter Shergold and lawyer Bronwyn Weir.

Moreover, efforts are underway to address these issues through a major project being undertaken by the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering, which is looking at how Australia must address fire safety design issues in building and construction.

Thus far, three reports have been issued.

These deal with:

  • Education and accreditation of fire safety engineers (first report)
  • Fire safety regulation and controls (second report); and
  • Design, performance solutions and verification methods in fire engineering (third report).

A fourth report will look at the role of fire engineers, This includes those who perform fire engineering design, those who review designs of peers and those who work as specialist fire engineers within the fire service.

The Warren Centre project, Johnson says, has been given added urgency following both the Shergold Weir report and the report into the Grenfell tragedy in the United Kingdom prepared by Dame Judith Hackett. Both reports concluded that regulatory systems in their respective countries were essentially broken and that the culture in design and construction is not up to the task.

What needs to be done?

According to the Warren Centre’s first three reports, several issues stand out.

1) We need a clear and comprehensive set of core competencies for fire safety engineering.

This was identified in the first report referred to above.

According to that report, there is no agreed definition of the skills and attributes which are needed of a professional fire safety engineer.

Instead, we need a core set of competencies which define the knowledge, skills and professional attributes which are needed to effectively practice fire safety engineering. These should distinguish between competencies needed for fire safety design and analysis, building surveyors/certifiers and fire services engineers who design systems such as sprinklers.

2) We need education and accreditation programs which are up to scratch.

This was the second finding from the first report.

Once aforementioned competencies are in place, these must be supported by degree programs which are adequate for trainees to develop these skills and robust processes for professional accreditation.

At the moment, this is not happening. Only one university (the University of Queensland) offers a degree program in fire engineering which is accredited by Engineers Australia. Three others (Victoria University, Western Sydney University and the University of Melbourne) offer fire engineering programs, but exist only through the use of invited or guest lectures.

This has consequences for accreditation. Under normal practice for engineering disciplines, first-tier accreditation would be granted to those who complete accredited degree programs. In fire engineering, the lack of degree programs means that accreditation relies on an alternative process whereby knowledge is assessed by one of two bodies who accredit fire engineers in Australia: IFE and Engineers Australia.

These accreditation processes themselves are hardly up to scratch. Both lack any clear definition of full and proper competencies against which to judge professional practice. Both rely on straightforward knowledge based criteria which are assessed through interview and report processes.

3) We need a nationally consistent model of regulation and control.

This was a conclusion reached in the second report.

At the moment, current practice in fire safety regulation and control is lacking. Only Queensland and Tasmania require mandatory registration for those performing fire safety engineering work. (Victoria will require fire engineers to be registered under a new law passed last month). Only NSW has legislative requirements to undertake mandatory construction site inspections and provide a report to the certifier. Only in three states: Victoria, Queensland and NSW, is there a mandatory regulatory requirement to consult with the fire brigade on certain matters – although in some other jurisdictions it is done on a voluntary basis.

Following on from this, the report says there is also a lack of audit and enforcement in regard to the performance of fire safety engineers and a lack of standards or requirements against which to assess either competency or performance.

What is needed is a national model set of regulatory controls for fire safety engineering which outlines who can be a fire safety engineer and how they should be able to practice. This should cover engineers involved in fire safety design, peer review of design, approval of performance solutions and officials within the fire brigade who view designs.

4) Verification Methods Should Not Drive the Design Process

This was a finding of the third report referred to above.

According to that report, verification should be a separate process from design. In fire engineering, design for any building should specify a strategy for fire safety which meets NCC performance requirements and which conforms to drivers and constraints for the project in question including an agreed level of fire safety. Verification, by contrast, should be a check to ensure that appropriate levels of safety are indeed met. This should be separate from design and should not drive design.

At the moment, however, current verification methods for fire safety referenced under the NCC are such that they are effectively being used as a driver of design when performance solutions are used. In particular, the verification methods define a minimum number of scenarios against which the performance requirements must be tested.

This, the report concludes, can drive a lowest common denominator approach toward design under which scenarios other than those specified as minimums in the verification method are ignored. Where this happens, it is possible that neither new challenges be addressed nor emerging risks be adequately considered during design.

Defining the Role of the Fire Engineer

The final Warren Centre report will look at the role of the fire engineer. This will outline the role which should be played by designers, peer reviewers and fire safety engineers who have special competencies in relation to the operation of fire-fighting and other mattes within the fire service.

Johnson says the last category is important as engineers at the fire service should be confident asking hard questions of their counterparts involved in fire safety design.

When it comes to roles, one thing Johnson would like is for fire service engineers to gain a better understanding of fire service operation. In his own case, Johnson did not experience a hot flame test until the latter part of his career. This, he said, should have been done earlier on. He says every fire engineer should understand fire operations and what it is like for fire services to go into a rescue.

Overall, Johnson says the fire engineering profession has challenges and opportunities.

“My conclusions are that there is a need for nationally consistent regulation,” Johnson says.

“We’ve got a great opportunity through the BMF and ABCB implementation team. If they are going to take on this new role for fire safety engineers, they need to demonstrate that we will have the competencies that do it appropriately.

“That’s the challenge for us to make sure that we put the competencies together in a way which is going to match the future role and responsibilities including taking responsibility for our designs at the design stage and the construction stage. If we are going to deliver those competencies, we need the education courses that can help produce those competencies and the fire safety engineering companies who are going to give their people the right supervised experience to make sure that when they apply for accreditation, they have all of the required competencies to come through that practice.

“If we do that, then combined with our ethical training as well as our fire safety engineering technical training, hopefully we will be part of a new culture that we are going to need across Australia not only for fire safety engineers but for all engineers.”