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An [Ounce] of Prevention

Worldwide, there are 350 graduates of WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering program, contributing in myriad ways to the broad field of fire prevention and fire safety. They educate and train fire safety professionals, provide technical assistance for firefighters, review new construction projects and building design plans, work with developers to assure building and fire code compliance, investigate fires, and analyze fire research. Their work is evident in every aspect of our daily lives, but whatever their field of expertise, they share a single goal: saving lives by making the world a safer place.

By Eileen McCluskey Photography by Patrick O’Connor

“The best fire department in the world can’t get there fast enough, because we’re not standing in the doorways with our hoses ready.” —David Demers

David Demers ’74 (B.S., ME), ’84 (M.S., FPE)

Deputy fire chief, Lunenburg (Mass.) Fire Department; president, Demers Associates, fire protection consultants

If Dave Demers had his way, every building, be it department store, hotel, school—even our homes—would be equipped with a sprinkler system. “Sprinklers are the answer,” he says. “Sprinklers put the wet stuff on the red stuff, fast.”

Since the mid-1970s, the firefighter and fire investigator has analyzed some of the nation’s most notorious blazes and preventable tragedies, including the 1977 jail fire in Maury County, Tenn., which killed 42 people; a Providence College dormitory blaze the following year in which 10 students died; and the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel inferno in Las Vegas, which resulted in 85 deaths and 650 injuries.

As saddening as his work may be, Demers loves what he does. “I’ve been interested in firefighting since I was a kid,” he says, citing a firemanship merit badge he earned as a Boy Scout. He balanced part-time firefighting duties while he was an undergraduate at WPI, worked at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conducting investigations and engineering analyses of some of the country’s deadliest fires before embarking on his master’s in FPE, and consulted for the Phoenix Fire Department as a grad student.

Fire safety in this country “has a long way to go, even though we’ve already come a long way,” Demers says. “Smoke detectors have helped a lot. But they’re just not enough. One giant step forward would be if we required sprinkler systems in all buildings. We have to do this, or we’re going to keep seeing multiple-fatality fires. The best fire department in the world can’t get there fast enough, because we’re not standing in the doorways with our hoses ready.” (Note: The photo at left shows Demers amid the wreckage of a 2002 arson fire that destroyed the 70-year-old ballroom at Whalom Park in Lunenberg, Mass.)

“My students are my disciples. I tell them, ‘You are the ones who are in a position to move fire safety forward.’” —Glenn Corbett

Glenn Corbett ’91 (M.S., FPE)

Assistant professor of fire science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City; volunteer fire captain, Waldwick, N.J.

Glenn Corbett indulges in his favorite hobby, fire history, through an extensive collection of firefighting memorabilia in his study, an 1850s hand pumper fire engine in his garage, and a privately published book he wrote, titled The Great Paterson Fire of 1902: The Story of New Jersey’s Biggest Blaze.

But along with his passion for history is his concern for the future of fire safety—inspired in large part by his father, who was involved in the fire service from the early 1950s until his death in 1981. Since 1978, Corbett has been a volunteer fire captain with the Waldwick Fire Department. He also prepares future generations of fire safety professionals as a faculty member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he earned an undergraduate degree in fire service administration in 1982.

Corbett’s knowledge and experience give him a sometimes troubling perspective on fire safety. Though he sees improvements in the United States compared to 30 years ago, he notes that “most of the easier [fire safety] measures have been implemented. It’s going to be much more difficult to drive fire deaths down further because we’ve got the hardest changes ahead of us.”

Those changes include retrofitting existing buildings to prevent fire-related deaths. “If we put sprinklers in every building in America, fire deaths would go down to zero,” he says, echoing the sentiments of many of his colleagues. The idea faces resistance on financial grounds by owners of restaurants, nightclubs, and single-family homes—places where the majority of fire-related deaths occur. (Corbett is installing sprinklers in nearly every room of his 2,000-square-foot house while it is being renovated. “I believe it will cost me four, five thousand dollars,” he says, adding “it’s money well spent.”)

Aside from saving lives, sprinkler systems can help make up for the fact that “fire services have been decimated financially since the 1970s as the costs associated with keeping fire departments have climbed,” Corbett says. Too, there is “a public perception that fires are no longer a big threat.” To counteract this, he uses his bully pulpit as a teacher to increase awareness of the issues he sees as most pressing. “My students are my disciples,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You are the ones who are in a position to move fire safety forward.’”

“As a profession, we’ve done a good job moving the science forward—fire protection has become a legitimate and trusted profession, and this has happened quickly.” —Richard Pehrson

Richard Pehrson ’93 (M.S., FPE), ’99 (Ph.D., FPE)

Fire protection engineer, Futrell Fire Consult & Design, Osseo, Minn.

Rich Pehrson conducts fire investigations, trains firefighters in protection issues, and consults on building code issues for complex structures or those with technical challenges. He says he feels confident that “as a profession, we’ve done a good job moving the science forward—fire protection has become a legitimate and trusted profession, and this has happened quickly.” Still, he is dissatisfied with the state of fire safety in America today, particularly in light of heightened security due to terrorism.

“In most cases, building security and fire safety are directly at odds,” he says. “With fire protection, you want many ways out, with doors that are under the individual’s control. With security, you want one way in and few ways out, with doors locked even from the inside.”

Such a disconnect can have disastrous results. “Existing high-rise buildings are designed based on evacuating two or three floors at a time,” Pehrson notes. “So there aren’t enough stairways to allow the building’s occupants to exit at one time. September 11 changed that thinking, although I’ve yet to see any of our building codes address the issue.” Pehrson knows his frustration is shared by others in fire safety. “It’s maddening to see fire exits locked from the inside, without an easy and reliable way for people to open them in an emergency.”

Solutions to such dilemmas will be hard to find, especially in the tangle of post-9/11 America. “We’ll have to balance needs on a case-by-case basis for now,” Pehrson admits. “Obviously, we’re dealing with huge societal issues here, and we still don’t have the vocabulary to iron everything out. Not yet, anyway.”

Thomas Izbicki ’96 (B.S., CE), ’97 (M.S., FPE)

Senior fire protection engineer, Dallas Fire-Rescue Department

Fire had devoured the top floor of a 73,000-square-foot mansion. Slate was sliding off the roof of the three-story structure, and firefighters were battling elusive spot fires inside the walls. Was it safe for them to continue to battle the flames from inside? Or was the roof about to collapse?

Enter Tom Izbicki, who had been called to the scene to check on the structure’s soundness. “Sure, send the engineer up there, like the canary into the mine,” he laughs, but admits he wouldn’t want it any other way.

Izbicki likes to be part of the action. One of his favorite learning experiences, gained from a prior consulting job, was managing a sophisticated series of tests to determine how the hurricane glass in airport buildings would respond to exposure to jet-fuel fires. His goal was to help determine the most effective layout for an airport’s sprinkler system.

In the project’s final phase, a 50-foot-diameter ditch was lined with plastic, filled mostly with water, and topped off with jet fuel. An array of three four-by-eight-foot panels were placed at varying distances from the ignited fuel while Izbicki and his team recorded the distance at which the glass began to deteriorate or break. “You can talk about engineering issues ’til you’re blue in the face,” he says. “But to actually watch the dynamics—that’s exciting.”

When he isn’t on the fire ground providing technical assistance to firefighters, Izbicki reviews building proposals and plans to ensure that fire codes are followed. “I work on every kind of structure,” he says, “from schools to high-rises, industrial warehouses to simple office buildings,” analyzing plans for such fire safety basics as access, egress, and hydrant spacing. “I try to make sure the firefighting operations will be as easy as possible.”

Though he may not get the same kind of buzz from analyzing designs as he does from being at the fire ground, Izbicki knows he’s helping firefighters do their job. “It’s important and interesting to understand what’s going to happen to the smoke from a fire in various structures and where, in relation to exits, the heat is most likely to travel,” he says. “The goal, of course, is getting everyone out before conditions become untenable.”

“We know how to protect people’s lives, how to protect property. And I’d say we’re pretty good at that, as a fire science industry. But our hands get tied with money and politics.” —David Waller

David Waller ’94 (B.S.), ’98 (M.S., FPE)

Fire safety engineer, North Metro Fire Rescue District, Broomfield, Colo.

Dave Waller had plenty of friends who’d mapped out careers in fire protection early on: high school buddies who were volunteer firefighters and four WPI frat brothers who were studying fire protection engineering. But he didn’t follow in their footsteps until he found himself bored in a mechanical engineering internship. Waller returned to WPI for his graduate degree in fire protection engineering and joined the student firefighter program in the Auburn (Mass.) Fire Department, where he lived with other students in one of the stations and, in return for room and board, worked as an on-call firefighter for the town.

“It was a tremendous opportunity,” Waller says. Not only did he get his feet wet dousing flames, but he also became a de facto member of the firehouse’s closeknit student community. “We shared responsibilities and our lives depended on each other,” he says, adding that he will be “forever bonded” to his Auburn brethren.

Today, in his work as a fire safety engineer with the North Metro Fire Rescue District, Waller reviews building design plans for fire code compliance. Key to this work is convincing often-reluctant developers and owners to go the distance for safety. Unfortunately, even today’s best fire codes and the most effective communicator comes up against political and monetary realities, which delay the creation of better codes. “We know how to protect people’s lives, how to protect property,” Waller says. “And I’d say we’re pretty good at that, as a fire science industry. But our hands get tied with money and politics.”

After the tragic Station nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I., in 2003, Waller says “state legislators in New England began changing codes. But that hasn’t happened in Colorado, because the disaster didn’t occur in our backyard.” He adds, “Fire protection engineers could prevent most fires, most deaths, today. In a properly sprinklered and maintained building, there has never been a multiple-death fire.” But, he says, “society and legislatures are not ready yet to spend the money.”

Learning to navigate the thorny paths of financial interests and politics “has been my greatest learning experience,” he says. “But it can be very frustrating. To me, as an engineer, things are black and white. But in the fire code world, there’s a whole lot of gray.”

”Fire protection engineers complement firefighters nicely. They’re ready to put out blazes, and we try to make buildings safe before they’re even built.” —Paul Donga

Paul Donga ’95 (M.S., FPE)

Fire protection supervisor, Boston Fire Department Fire Prevention Division’s Plan Review and Acceptance Testing Unit

Paul Donga discovered WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering program while working for Boston’s Building Department.

The city’s fire marshal had told Donga of a job involving fire code compliance reviews. “I wanted to get into that area,” he says, “but my background was in electrical engineering.” Still, he landed the job and then entered the FPE program. “I got exactly what I went for at WPI: tools for analysis,” he says, which he uses daily reviewing building plans and overseeing acceptance testing—the final hurdle building owners must jump before occupying their structures.

Donga enjoys analyzing quirky building designs for fire safety. “With unique designs such as arenas or large convention halls, it’s not always possible to meet the letter of the fire code,” he notes. Design teams try to fulfill the code’s intent, but won’t always hit the mark. “If they claim a certain measure will work in terms of life safety, but we disagree, we point out where the design falls short and suggest changes,” he explains. “Often, the developer will adjust the design to incorporate our feedback. But if they don’t, we show up at the appeals hearings and resolve the issue that way.” Though he prefers to find common ground prior to the appeals process, Donga won’t back down. “Safety always comes first,” he says.

Not all fire departments participate in the acceptance testing process; Donga is glad his does. In fact, the unit’s creation is one of his most rewarding achievements as a fire protection engineer. “When I started out, Boston’s fire department wasn’t involved in the Certificate of Occupancy application,” he explains. “I got to be part of the team that created the unit I work in today.”

While not unique, the Plan Review and Acceptance Testing Unit is one of only a few in the nation. All fire departments participate to some extent with building plan reviews, but few have a say during acceptance testing. In this phase of the building process, Donga and his team—which includes two other WPI alumni—watch as fire pumps and fire alarms are tested, witness sprinkler system installation, see that smoke control systems work as intended, and in general certify that all fire safety systems are in place and operational. “It’s very important to identify problems during acceptance testing,” says Donga, “rather than discover them in an emergency.”

“Minimizing life loss and property loss— that’s the way to do the best you can with your knowledge.” —Kenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller ’95 (M.S., FPE)

Assistant fire protection engineer, Las Vegas Fire Department

Whether a new Las Vegas building will be a typical Wal-Mart or a unique casino with high-rise thrill rides, Ken Miller makes sure it will not be a fire trap by reviewing construction projects of all stripes to ensure the designs meet building and fire codes.

He recalls the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in which the blaze itself killed very few people. “But smoke filled the hotel tower 15 or 20 floors above the fire, and 85 people were killed, most of them from smoke inhalation,” he says. New high-rise codes, written with Miller’s involvement, use buildings’ HVAC systems to keep smoke contained.

Despite improvements he’s seen, Miller is frustrated by the sluggish evolution of fire safety codes. After colossal tragedies such as the 9/11 World Trade Center conflagration or The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, “everyone beats their drums, calling for code changes,” he says. “But change comes slowly.”

While Miller acknowledges that politics, bureaucracies, and human nature can get in the way of change, “the pace of change in building codes also depends on your jurisdiction.

In Las Vegas and Clark County, codes are relatively good because tourism drives the casino industry. People realize that this valley could never survive economically if there were another MGM Grand fire. So they take proactive steps in developing better building designs and codes.”

Sometimes, especially in a place like Las Vegas, that’s a tall order. Although most of the buildings Miller works on are typical commercial structures, 25 percent “cannot meet the letter of the code, because the buildings themselves are unique,” he says. Take, for instance, the Stratosphere Tower, a casino boasting the world’s three largest thrill rides atop the 1,149-foot-high building. For this structure, Miller helped assure fire safety by requiring two sets of backup water supplies for the fire sprinklers.

Miller’s satisfied with the progress he’s helped facilitate.

“In my seven and a half years in Las Vegas, there have been documented cases where buildings I’ve approved have spared many lives and in which the fire sprinkler systems have helped extinguish dozens of fires,” he says. “Minimizing life loss and property loss—that’s the way to do the best you can with your knowledge.”

“There is simply not enough emphasis placed on fire prevention and education in our country today. The public needs to take a proactive stance in fire prevention and call the fire department if something isn’t right.” —Timothee Rodrique

Timothee Rodrique ’96 (M.S., FPE)

Director of fire safety, Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal

While attending WPI, Tim Rodrique worked for five years as a loss prevention consultant at Factory Mutual Engineering and Research Corporation in Norwood, Mass. “I learned the theory of fire behavior and fire dynamics at WPI,” he says. “At Factory Mutual, I got the sprinkler system design experience and learned the ins and outs of fire codes. Combining theory with practice was invaluable to my career.”

As director of fire safety with the Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal, Rodrique sits on the Building Regul- ations and Standards Appeals Board, helping developers comply with codes. His greatest achievement to date has been participating in the state-level task force on fire and building safety, a group convened by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney after The Station nightclub fire in 2003 in Warwick, R.I., in which 100 perished. The 32-member panel, which included other WPI alumni, wrote a report addressing sprinkler systems, egress, interior finishes, and training and education, among other code-related issues. As a result of the report, Romney signed into law a new fire safety bill in August 2004. “This law involves some of the most sweeping changes in fire code since 1942,” Rodrique says, referring to the year of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, which killed 492 people.

But Rodrique knows that fire code problems are far from being solved. “The important thing to remember about fire codes is that they set a minimum,” he explains. “If you’re building a multimillion-dollar structure in a town that has only four firefighters, you may need to install more than fire sprinklers and possibly more than what is required by the code if you want to protect your life and property.”

Rodrique also advises that everyone needs to be vigilant about fire safety. “There is simply not enough emphasis placed on fire prevention and education in our country today,” he says. “The public needs to take a proactive stance in fire prevention and call the fire department if something isn’t right.”

“I’ve watched thousands of fires, both in the lab and out. Being able to see so many different things burn provides a deep understanding of how they burn. And the neat thing about this job is I’m still surprised sometimes.” —David Sheppard

David Sheppard ’93 (M.S., FPE)

Senior fire research engineer, Fire Research Laboratory, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Ammendale, Md.

Dave Sheppard has one word to sum up his job: fun. He works in a huge laboratory—half of a 176,000-square-foot facility—where materials and fluids are regularly set afire so scientists can study their fire- and smoke-related properties. The place is big enough to fit cars, buses, and even reconstructed buildings for studies. In the other half of the facility, scientists conduct traditional forensics work, such as analyzing blood traces, fingerprints, and bullets.

Sheppard wears three hats at ATF: scientific supporter for arson investigations, trainer, and fire researcher. In criminal case support work at the national, state, and local levels, he applies what he learned at WPI about fire dynamics and heat transfer calculations and analyzing visibility from various vantage points during the fire. These skills help him verify or void witness testimony when cases go to court.

As a trainer, he educates engineers and arson investigators in the latest research findings and computer modeling technology, passing along wisdom gained through fire research—Sheppard’s favorite area. “I’ve watched thousands of fires, both in the lab and out,” he says. “Being able to see so many different things burn provides a deep understanding of how they burn. And the neat thing about this job is I’m still surprised sometimes.”

Putting the damper on old inaccuracies about fire is not something Sheppard does just for the fun of it. In the relatively young field of fire science, he realizes how vital it is to increase the knowledge base. “Since the 1970s, fire science has come a long way,” he says. “Engineers and institutions such as WPI are helping us all make the transition from art to science. We know so much more now about why smoke travels the way it does, for instance, and how visibility will be affected in a given type of fire. That’s an amazing accomplishment.”

“I’m grateful to WPI for its emphasis on the ability to communicate. When I’m talking with clients, whether a sprinkler system installer or construction contractor, I have to be able to explain fire code requirements and engineering methods without making everyone’s eyes glaze over.” —David Waller
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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 13:43 EST
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