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Up Ahead, with Kathy Notarianni

Kathy Notarianni ’86 (B.S., CE), ’88 (M.S., FPE) was for 15 years project leader and research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. While there, she started and grew a large fire research program and managed a team of scientists and engineers. In addition to her WPI degrees, she holds a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University. As the new director of WPI’s Center for Firesafety Studies, she will work with the FPE faculty to plan for the future of graduate studies and research and build relationships with off-campus agencies, laboratories, universities, and companies that share WPI’s interests in fire protection engineering education and research.

1. Which interest came first for you: engineering or fire safety?

Engineering. I loved math and chemistry in high school. In WPI’s chemical engineering program, I was intrigued with fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and thermodynamics. A fire chemistry class introduced me to the fascinating problems of fire and life safety. That completed the picture for me.

2. Fire codes and technologies often face strong political opposition. How can engineers and politicians work together to improve fire safety?

Engineers, scientists, and decision makers (building owners, inspectors, and state and local government officials, among others) need to learn each other’s language and begin a dialogue. My Ph.D. has proved invaluable in helping me communicate with politicians and decision makers. WPI’s FPE program will increasingly incorporate such subjects as economics, risk assessment and communication, decision analysis, and applied policy analysis into its curriculum. And we will continue to invite decision makers to talk with us about fire safety issues.

3. How do you feel about staffing and funding being cut for fire departments?

Just as in a household, local jurisdictions have to balance budgets and pay bills. Personnel are often the first to be cut because they represent the biggest part of the budget. But I’m uncomfortable with such a quick-fix solution. Budget allocations should follow a complete financial review and an equally thorough analysis of important factors such as coverage areas, response time, and the impact on the safety of the community.

4. What can be done to build safer structures in the United States?

Buildings need to be designed from a multidisciplinary viewpoint, keeping the safety of people as the primary focus. Today, working with fire protection engineers, structural engineers are helping design buildings that will remain standing during a severe fire threat, psychologists and sociologists are learning more about human behavior in fires, and mechanical and electrical engineers are helping create “smart” buildings that can communicate lifesaving information to occupants during an incident. It’s an exciting time in the world of building design, and fire protection engineering is at the core of this excitement.

5. You advocate mandating residential sprinklers in one- and two-family homes, mobile homes, and multifamily dwellings. Is this realistic?

It already is happening. Multiple communities across America have passed residential sprinkler mandates for new construction. These mandates require apartment buildings, multifamily dwellings, townhouses, and even some single-family dwellings to have residential sprinklers. This trend will continue.

6. How can other universities assist the center?

I’ve been building strong relationships with other universities; they will serve as our partners in research and multidisciplinary teaching. There is much important work to be done in designing safe buildings that requires partnerships beyond fire protection and beyond engineering.

7. Is WPI doing a better job teaching and researching in the field of fire protection engineering than other universities?

We offered the first graduate engineering program and the only Ph.D. program in the United States for this unique discipline. Our graduates are highly trained and work in all areas of fire safety. WPI is a world leader in fire protection engineering education, and we will continue to lead the way in engaging engineering students at other universities in fire protection engineering.

8. What is it like directing the center where you were once a student?

I feel that I have a special job, one I was called to do. As a graduate student, I remember clearly the feelings I had coming into the Center for Firesafety Studies; I was choosing not just a field of study, but committing to a career that makes the world a safer place. I will remember always having a friend and confidante in David Lucht. He helped to illuminate my path, and I want to provide that for the next generation of students.

9. Do you see the center as more than just an academic base?

My top priority is to create a friendly, supportive, intellectually rich, and stimulating work environment for our students, faculty, and staff. We do this by providing a wealth of opportunities for both intellectual and social interaction between these three groups. I hope to foster both the recruitment of quality students from diverse backgrounds and opportunities for challenge and success once students are in our programs.

10. What’s your vision for the future of WPI’s Center for Firesafety Studies?

To build on the current strengths of the program and of theuniversity, I’d like to establish a department of fire protection engineering that has, within its scope, both an industrial liaison center and a fire research center. I envision a department that awards a greater number of Ph.D.s each year so we can meet the country’s needs in fire research, scholarship, and teaching. Finally, I’d like to see more funding for full-time graduate study, a larger fire laboratory, and programs that award joint multi-disciplinary degrees with other schools.

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 12:32 EST
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