June 07, 2013

Randy Harris has been with WPI since 2002. In his role at Gateway’s fire lab, his responsibilities range from training personnel to supporting students in their MQPs. The Herd was curious about what goes on over at that “other” campus, so today we dive into A Day in the Life within the fire lab to find out.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 50 years old and I live in Burrillville, R.I. My wife, Laurie, and I will be celebrating our 10th anniversary this summer.

Describe your role here at WPI.

As laboratory manager, my responsibilities include the safety of lab personnel, training of lab personnel, maintenance of lab equipment and computers, maintaining inventories, providing lab tours and demonstrations, assisting students and faculty with experimental setup, coordinating with outside agencies and organizations to provide Service to Industry testing, and support of MQPs, theses and dissertations.

What does Fire Protection mean at WPI?

A great job when you graduate! (jk)

The main objective for Fire Protection at WPI is that of the fire protection industry: prevention of loss of lives and property. This is accomplished in a study of diverse subjects from chemistry to  human psychology.

How has the new facility at Gateway helped the fire lab grow?

Foremost, the new facility enables us to utilize our current testing equipment in a much more safe and efficient manner, such as running experiments concurrently, something that was difficult as best in our facility at Higgins Labs. We often had to scale down standard industry tests due to our lack of space. Now we have the ability to replicate a two-story exterior, for example.

What are future plans in the fire protection unit as far as research and studies?

Our immediate plans are focused on getting the large hood instrumented so it may operate as a calorimeter, which will enable us to analyze the fires taking place under the hood.

What sort of qualifications does a lab manager need?

Metaphorically speaking you’ve got to be able to wear many hats, sometimes all at once! My job has been described as similar to running a small business. Coming from a tech-based background has helped, as have the years I spent as a technical trainer. I’ve been told that my military experience was key, as well.

Can you share a few highlights of your job?

One of the most memorable was a demonstration we did on the Quad several years ago. We demonstrated the importance of fire safety in dormitories by setting fire to a mock dorm room. Students were impressed by the rapid fire growth and size. Judging by their responses, it was a very effective demonstration.

Is there a downside?

Yes, the traffic on 290 every morning! But, really, I’d say the downside is tearing down burned up, wet sheetrock after some of our larger experiments. Some days I resemble a chimney sweep.

Have you ever been tempted to make s’mores under the giant hood?

No, but I do believe it would make the ultimate indoor BBQ. Must be a guy thing!

What do you do with your time off?

Since my teens I’ve been a semi-pro musician, and even spent several years doing it full time. I currently am active in three bands [percussion]and fill in with several others. Music has given me wonderful opportunities to travel and to make lifelong friends. Plans for the summer include a stay at the beach in Narragansett (Rhode Island needs the money!) and making music in beautiful Newport.