WPI Journal  
Volume CI, No. 3 - Summer 1999

Taming an Element - Two Decades of Making the World Safe From Fire

By Allison Chisolm

In an article in the May 1898 issue of the WPI Journal, Henry Lucian Phillips, Class of 1893, looked boldly to the new millennium. "It is safe to prophesy that not many years will elapse before scientific colleges will seriously consider [fire protection engineering] and include regular lectures or courses upon it in their curriculum."

Phillips was one of hundreds of WPI graduates through the years who made significant contributions to the field of fire safety before it emerged as a formal academic discipline. That distinguished group included Edward G. Watkins, Class of 1886, who invented one of the first practical time clocks and founded Simplex Time Recorder Co., which was also a pioneer in fire alarm systems; George I. Rockwood, Class of 1888, who taught steam engineering at WPI and founded Rockwood Sprinkler Co.; and Howard G. Freeman '40, head of research and development at Rockwood Sprinkler, where he invented the Watermist spray nozzle that saved thousands of lives on Navy ships during World War II. Today, many more alumni, with degrees in such fields as mechanical and civil engineering, are active as fire protection engineering practitioners.

"The school was experimenting with all kinds of things...and the faculty recognized that FPE was a legitimate technical application that was accepted within and outside WPI."

Although it took a bit longer than Phillips predicted, a select few colleges and universities did begin to "seriously consider" the science and technology of fire in the 20th century. Prominent among them was WPI, which in 1979 established the first graduate program in fire protection engineering in the United States. Blazing a trail in a field that was still in the process of inventing itself, WPI's program set the standard for graduate education in the discipline and built a reputation around the world through the work of its faculty and the accomplishments of its graduates. As it celebrates its 20th birthday, WPI's Center for Firesafety Studies can look back with pride on two decades that have truly helped to define the modern art and science of fire safety.

Robert Fitzgerald and Captain William Metterville at Worcester's Grove Street fire station.

Kindling a New Flame
Henry Phillips was concerned about fire in 1898 because in his lifetime, major portions of cities like Boston, Chicago, Portland and Seattle had burned to the ground. Fires continued to take a toll on life and property over the decades to follow--so much so, that by the 1960s, the United States held the dubious distinction of having the worst fire safety record in the industrialized world. Alarm bells resounded in Congress, which passed the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968, and in the White House, where President Richard M. Nixon appointed a National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in the early 1970s. In its hard-hitting final report, America Burning, the commission said, "Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all the major industrialized countries in per capita deaths and property loss from fire."

The report led to a number of dramatic changes in fire safety in the United States, among them the creation of the United States Fire Administration to support the work of local communities in preventing and mitigating the effects of fire. With the advice and consent of the Senate, President Gerald R. Ford appointed David A. Lucht, a former Ohio fire marshal, to the post of deputy administrator.

In 1978, WPI created the Center for Firesafety Studies. It was the world's first self-sustaining academic department dedicated to bringing together individuals from many disciplines to share their fire safety knowledge and expertise. When WPI President Edmund T. Cranch consented to setting up the center, he insisted on appointing a nationally known leader to head the program. He selected Lucht, who left his Washington post and moved to Massachusetts to serve as vice president of a Boston-area consulting engineering firm while heading WPI's center one day a week. By 1985, the program had grown substantially and Lucht made the transition to full-time status as professor and director of the Center for Firesafety Studies.

Since 1993, the West Station in nearby Auburn has been manned by a team of FPE graduate students, who receive housing in return for their service. The Auburn program was started by Richard Pehrson, below, who received WPI's first doctorate in FPE in May.

The original idea for creating a fire safety studies program was a natural outgrowth of the innovative WPI Plan, which required students and professors to get highly involved at the interface between technology and greater social issues. Robert W. Fitzgerald, a structural engineer, designer and professor of civil engineering at WPI, saw the American fire problem as a unique opportunity for student projects. Fitzgerald's interest in fire safety was triggered in the early 1970s when he wrote the section on fire for the manual on multidisaster events put out by the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (now the Federal Emergency Management Agency). In the process, he got to know government and private-sector fire protection leaders, including a number of WPI alumni.

The WPI Plan, then less than 10 years old, had created a culture receptive to new interdisciplinary programs, particularly those with a recognizable social impact. "The school was experimenting with all kinds of things--exciting new avenues of technology--especially with projects," says Fitzgerald, "and the faculty recognized that FPE was a legitimate technical application that had support within and outside WPI. They began to see that fire safety was more than fire engines and helmets--more than building codes and insurance."

The interdisciplinary nature of exploring fire appealed to many students. More than 40 faculty members advised fire-related projects (many sponsored by the Worcester Fire Department) during the 1970s. It was also during this period that computational modeling began to revolutionize many fields of engineering, enabling engineers to simulate complex systems like fire and to find solutions to problems more efficiently.

The combination of student and faculty interest and expertise and the growing sophistication of the field of fire science led WPI to establish the nation's first master's degree program in fire protection engineering in 1979. Twelve years later, it would launch a first-of-its-kind doctoral program in FPE. (The first doctorate was awarded in May to Richard D. Pehrson of Edina, Minn., who works in the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's office.) "The degree programs grew from the bottom up," Lucht says. "The original faculty came from a number of departments. We also had several practicing professionals from the area who taught part time."

The core group of faculty consisted of Lucht, Fitzgerald and Jonathan Barnett '74, now associate professor of fire protection engineering. Barnett, who had worked in the same engineering firm as Lucht, returned to WPI to pursue a fire-oriented doctorate in mechanical engineering (awarded in 1989) and to serve as assistant director of the Center for Fire Safety Studies. Support staff have also played an important role in the development of the program. Administrative secretary Sandra Williams, a key member of this core group, has been helping the center run efficiently since it admitted its first full-time students.

The job facing Lucht and his faculty in the early days of the program was no less than transforming a good idea into a functioning, flesh-and-blood academic and research program. To begin with, there were no students, no faculty, no textbooks and no courses. "My job was to help pull all those pieces together and to find resources to support the program," Lucht says.

"Dave Lucht brought everything together with a passion--that's been the key to our success," says Fitzgerald. "He inspires trust in people. That trust and esteem are held universally throughout America and the world."

Defining a Discipline
About a dozen students enrolled in the first class--all were part-timers attending classes at night with "borrowed" professors. The first course, Physical Chemistry of Fire, was taught by Edward Clougherty, then chief chemist for the Boston Fire Department. The first full-time students enrolled in 1983. Through the years, nearly half of the students have entered the FPE master's program with a mechanical engineering background. About 35 percent have studied civil engineering and 10 percent have done work in chemical or electrical engineering. The remainder have undergraduate degrees in a wide range of disciplines, including a few in fire protection engineering.

For the young master's program, research, education and technology transfer would be the means to achieving an end that transcended education. "Our goal was more than to offer a degree program," says Lucht. "We were setting out to define a discipline."

In one of the first steps toward that objective, Dougal D. Drysdale was hired to write the world's first advanced textbook on the application of combustion chemistry and physics principles to fire protection. Drysdale is a faculty member at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which then offered a master's degree program in fire safety engineering. He spent more than a semester at WPI teaching and writing Introduction to Fire Dynamics one chapter per week from his class notes. Published in 1982, the book was recently released in an updated second edition. "It's still the benchmark of the profession," Lucht says.

"Fire protection engineers feel they have a calling. It's more than just a route to a paycheck."

Several other FPE texts are under development within the center on such topics as industrial fire protection, sprinkler systems, detection and alarm systems, and fire chemistry. These texts reflect the breadth of the FPE curriculum at WPI. In fact, fire dynamics is only one of 17 courses offered by the department. In the others, students learn about such topics as how a building's design (its structure and its exit, smoke control, sprinkler and alarm systems) affect the spread of fire, and how to analyze industrial processes and facilities--for example, how to protect flammable liquid storage tanks.

The Center for Firesafety Studies now has five full-time faculty members, including Professor Robert G. Zalosh and Associate Professor Nicholas A. Dembsey. Zalosh served as an adjunct professor in the early years of the program while doing fire and explosion research at Factory Mutual Research Corp. Since joining the full-time FPE faculty in 1990, he has conducted research on a variety of explosion hazards, including aircraft and tanker ship fuel storage tanks and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicle fuel systems. He and his research assistants are currently preparing to conduct CNG dispersion tests in the parking garage of the Saltonstall Building in Boston.

Dembsey oversees the center's Fire Science Laboratory. A member of the faculty since 1995, he is currently advising four doctoral candidates. "I like experimentation and engineering applications," he says. His role in the department enables him to work in both areas. Dembsey's current research ranges from thermal performance of fire protective clothing, to fire performance of marine composite panel systems for fast ferries, to strategies for validating of computer fire models.

The scope of the department has been broadened through the involvement of experts from other disciplines. Management Professor Francis Noonan, who has a joint appointment in fire protection engineering, teaches risk analysis and management. Professors in a number of other academic departments at WPI collaborate with FPE professors on research and projects. They include computer science faculty members David C. Brown and Matthew O. Ward, and mechanical engineering professor Brian J. Savilonis. The department's adjunct faculty members, which include Clougherty and Robert P. Schifiliti '79 ('85 M.S. FPE), president of R.P. Schifiliti Associates Inc., bring a practical fire protection perspective to the center.

That perspective is a critical element of the FPE curriculum at WPI, since the ability to apply engineering science to real fire problems is at the heart of fire protection engineering. The center's faculty and staff recognize that its master's and doctoral candidates are looking toward careers that will enable them to put their knowledge into practice.

Graduate internships are one way the center helps them reach that goal. The internships vary tremendously. Dozens of companies and organizations have sponsored internships for WPI fire protection engineering students, including the National Fire Protection Association, Intel Corporation, the Dallas Fire Department, Westinghouse, IBM, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 3M, Underwriters Laboratories and the U.S. Navy. One of the most unusual internships took Douglas Carpenter to the bottom of the world, where he evaluated potential fire safety scenarios and protective methods for buildings at the South Pole's McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott stations with funding from the National Science Foundation.

"Our master's is a first professional degree," notes Lucht. "The majority of these students pay their own way and are career-bound. And the jobs pay well--in the vicinity of $50,000 to start. Employers hire our graduates because the technology is changing so fast the world can't keep up. They need to have technical specialists in this field."

Like their counterparts in other engineering disciplines, fire protection engineers are responsible for knowing how to do a variety of tasks. FPE graduates may design sprinkler, alarm and smoke-control systems, perform risk analyses of major industrial facilities, investigate fires and explosions, consult with architects on the design of skyscrapers, hospitals, hotels, sports stadiums and other structures, or do basic or applied research involving fire.

What sets them apart is their passion for their work, says Lucht. "They feel they have a bit of a calling--it's more than just a route to a paycheck." Fitzgerald agrees. "FPEs are a passionate, opinionated, but very congenial group," he says. "But they're also quite willing to share their knowledge and offer help and resources. People in the fire business are different from people in many other technical fields. If you ask them a question, they'll answer it. But then they'll go on and determine what you really wanted to know--and then answer that.

"Like firefighters, they're very giving, very responsive. They like to do good. Their field just happens to be quite profitable. It's a business that, once people get into it, they rarely leave."

A Program With Global Influence and Reach
As graduate programs, the master's and Ph.D. curricula offer opportunities for a strong emphasis on research. Students work with faculty members on a wide range of research initiatives, covering such advanced areas as computer fire modeling, fire performance of structural systems, fire growth and smoke characterization, fire safety design methods and explosion phenomena. Over the years, research in the department has covered a wide range of topics, from fire safe design in Coast Guard and Navy vessels, to the combustion characteristics of materials, to testing the effectiveness of new fire suppression chemicals, to the development of new software tools for modeling fire and predicting fire behavior.

Supporting this active research program is the Computational Fire Modeling Laboratory, equipped with engineering workstations and other tools for high-performance computer modeling. Barnett oversees this lab, which provides students with opportunities to work at the cutting edge of computer applications in fire safety.

The program is also supported by the 2,000-square-foot Fire Science Laboratory, equipped with test apparatus and instrumentation funded by the National Science Foundation and industry. The fire science lab offers state-of-the-art capabilities that include cone and room calorimeters, a smoke density chamber, flame spread apparatus, infrared imaging system, a phase doppler particle analyzer, explosion test vessels, and special smoke detectors, fire pumps and sprinkler system control values. Corporations that wish to undertake small-scale testing of new product materials can also take advantage of the lab's capabilities.

Just as research has helped to enhance the Center for Firesafety Studies' reputation, the tools of distance education have helped bring its curriculum to students around the globe. In 1993, WPI became the first university to offer for-credit courses in fire protection engineering via distance learning. Demand for the University's expertise from the far corners of the world convinced the center to give distance education a try. "People kept telling us, 'We need your program and your information, but we can't quit our jobs and come to Worcester,'" Barnett says. "Through distance education, we've been able to identify a market need and deliver quality courses to practicing professionals throughout the world."

Students at some 100 locations throughout the United States and Canada, as well as several overseas sites, have taken FPE courses via distance education. Last year, one of Barnett's distance learning courses was delivered simultaneously to students in several locations in the United States and Sweden. Courses have also been offered via teleconferencing at Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, Ill., for more than three years.

Lectures are recorded in a studio classroom on videotape, duplicated and shipped within two days to the students; other materials are posted on the Web. Students send in their work electronically and contact their professor and fellow students via e-mail, phone and fax. For group projects, students divide up tasks and work interactively on the Web and through e-mail.

"We've found distance learning to be an effective way to educate adults," notes Lucht. "Studies have shown that for practicing professionals, the learning quality is as good as or sometimes better than in a classroom. There is a great need out there. Thousands of engineers want to upgrade the skills they've learned on the job. We can reach them at home or at work--wherever UPS delivers."

To complete a master's degree via distance learning, students may fulfil up to one-third of the course requirements by taking appropriate graduate courses at a university near their home or workplace.

The Center for Firesafety Studies also offers four- or five-course distance learning "packages" that enable students to earn a graduate or advanced certificate in fire protection engineering. These credits may be applied toward a master's degree. The first graduate certificate recipient, Marty Pabich, is a senior project engineer for Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, Ill. He will continue his work toward a master's degree by combining distance learning and courses at a local university. Tracey Bellamy, a fire protection engineer in Atlanta with a master's in civil engineering, earned the first advanced certificate and has plans to complete a second master's in FPE.

Nicholas Dembsey, left, and Robert Zalosh observe the operation of the cone calorimeter in the 2,000-square-foot Fire Science Laboratory.

Partnerships and Funding for the Future
Strategic alliances with other universities are in keeping with the Center for Firesafety Studies' mission to "define the discipline and get the information out there," says Lucht, who notes that the program is currently exploring relationships with universities in Thailand, Brazil, and Costa Rica. Over time, these alliances may yield new academic and research programs that build on the strengths of each institution. WPI's faculty, its experience in graduate education, and its distance learning resources are among the assets the University brings to these relationships, Lucht says.

Faculty and students in fire protection engineering at WPI have also been active in forging ties with institutions overseas. Fitzgerald has been especially involved, having been appointed a visiting professor of engineering at Pernambuco University in Brazil and an external examiner for the graduate fire safety engineering degree at the University of Ulster in Ireland. He was recently appointed an international visiting fellow at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh in England, where he trains instructors in advanced building fire safety evaluation methods. A number of student projects focusing on fire safety have been conducted in New Zealand, Germany and London, among other locations. Barnett recently returned from Melbourne, Australia, where he supervised nine undergraduate students who completed fire-related Interactive Qualifying Projects.

In addition to strategic alliances, financial support will be a key to the future success of the Center for Firesafety Studies.

"The uniqueness of our program and its clear benefits to society help us with fund raising," Lucht says. The first donor to the program was the late Percy Bugbee, former general manager of the National Fire Protection Association. A more recent result of Lucht's fund-raising efforts is the Howard W. Emmons Distinguished Scholar Endowment, named for the late emeritus professor from Harvard who is considered the founder of modern computer fire modeling. This fund and several others are used to bring distinguished lecturers to campus. Industry has also been generous, supporting the center with some $3 million in contributions.

"The work of our faculty and alumni around the world is helping advance fire safety and make the world a safer place."

Contributions have supported a variety of program needs. They are also enabling the center to build the Fire Protection Engineering Distinguished Scholar Endowment to support the department's teaching faculty, the most critical component of the FPE program, with teaching assistantships, lectureships, professional development stipends and specialized equipment required by faculty in the pursuit of scholarly interests.

"Our program has evolved significantly," says Fitzgerald. "During the first couple of years we developed courses, books, ideas and so on. Until the mid-1980s we were really in an early stage--still adolescents. Now we are reaching maturity in our capabilities, technology and people. In many ways, we're much further along than we thought we would be at this time."

Sandra Williams, administrative secretary for the Center for Firesafety Studies.

Today, WPI's FPE graduate programs are testimony to the tenacity and hard work of its founding members. More than 100 students are now enrolled in fire protection engineering graduate programs, including eight doctoral students. The Center for Firesafety Studies also offers a five-year B.S./M.S. program for high school graduates and short courses and seminars that help working professionals keep abreast of the field's fast-changing technology. A video-based self-instruction short course is under development.

The field of fire protection engineering also has changed considerably over the past two decades. Deaths from fire in the United States have dropped by some 50 percent since America Burning was issued. Computer modeling, new materials and fire-suppression agents, new fire safety technologies, new approaches to design, and new regulatory practices are transforming the way engineers look at fire safety in buildings and vehicles.

"We certainly can't take credit for all these changes," Lucht says, "but the work of our faculty and our alumni around the world is helping to advance fire safety and make the world a safer place. Nearly half of our graduates are employed in the fast-growing field of consulting engineering. The others work for local fire departments, state fire marshal's offices, large industrial companies, government agencies, insurance companies, research and testing labs, building materials, codes and standards organizations, and fire protection systems manufacturers.

"They're at work on five of the seven continents, from Brazil to China. They have changed the way people and structures are protected from the devastation of fire. They are making a difference, and I think that is the most important outcome of these past 20 years."

-Chisolm, a freelance writer in Worcester, writes frequently for the Journal.

Last Updated: 7/6/99

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