History of Fire Protection Engineering

By: Arthur E. Cote, P.E., FSFPE

SFPE defines “fire protection engineering” as the application of science and engineering principles to protect people and their environment from destructive fire. The earliest examples of fire protection engineering can be found in the various regulations that were established as a result of catastrophic historic conflagrations.

After Rome burned in 64 AD, Emperor Nero had regulations drawn up after the fire requiring fireproof materials be used for external walls in rebuilding the city. This was perhaps the first recorded example of using the science and engineering of the day in the practice of fire protection engineering.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages, it wasn’t until the 17th century, during the Renaissance, that a technical approach to fire protection again emerged. After the Great London Fire of 1666, which destroyed over 80 percent of the city, London adopted its first building regulations requiring stone and brick houses with fire-resisting party wall separations. The London fire also spurred interest in the development of fire-suppression equipment in the form of hand-pumper fire apparatus. The design of this equipment is another example of early fire protection engineering.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 18th century and in the United States in the early 19th century, conflagrations continued but began to decline as combustible construction was replaced by masonry, concrete and steel; public fire departments were formed; public water supplies with underground water mains and fire hydrants were installed; and fire apparatus improved. During this same period, the focus of fire protection engineering shifted from addressing multiple building conflagrations to dealing with specific buildings and their contents. New industrial processes and material storage practices resulted in greater fire risks, and a number of spectacular building fires occurred during this period as engineering solutions were being developed to address the new fire hazards.

During the middle of the 19th century, a number of severe fires occurred in textile and paper mills in New England. Caused by lint and paper debris, these fires spread so rapidly that they could not be controlled by traditional manual firefighting. The fire protection engineering solution was to install a system of manually operated perforated pipes at the ceiling, thereby creating one of the first fixed fire-suppression systems. The desire to make such a water extinguishing system automatic ultimately led to the development of one of the most important innovations in fire protection engineering – the automatic sprinkler. The first patent for an automatic sprinkler was awarded to Henry S. Parmelee in 1874. Frederick Grinnell further refined the sprinkler design in the early 1880s.

During the 19th century, many of the advancements in fire protection engineering were brought about by the influence of the insurance industry and the desire to minimize property insurance losses.

A handful of organizations were formed by the insurance industry in the U.S. that were responsible for establishing the concept of fire protection engineering, putting it into practice and facilitating its growth and recognition as a profession. These were Factory Mutual in 1835, National Board of Fire Underwriters in 1866, Factory Insurance Association in 1890, Underwriters Laboratories in 1893 and the National Fire Protection Association in 1896. These were the founding organizations of fire protection engineering. They were founded in large measure to reduce the loss of life and property from destructive fire. In doing so, they applied the principles of science and engineering, and launched fire protection engineering.

Factory Mutual (FM)
Zachariah Allen, a prominent mill owner in Rhode Island in 1835, combined the concepts of mutual insurance and property protection to form Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Company. This insurance company was based on the concept of insuring only factories that were good risks and that would ultimately pay less for insurance because there would likely be fewer and smaller losses.

By utilizing proper fire prevention methods and regular fire inspections, the concept proved to be successful and the Factory Mutual (FM) system was born. In 1878, MIT engineer C.J.H. Woodbury was hired as an inspector for Boston Manufacturers Mutual, one of the FM insurance companies. This use of a graduate engineer as a fire inspector makes Woodbury one of the first (if not THE first) true fire protection engineers. The second MIT engineer to join Factory Mutual was John R. Freeman in 1886. He gathered around him a corps of engineers and began for the first time to put fire protection and prevention on a truly scientific basis.

A small laboratory was established to test fire protection equipment. This laboratory was the humble beginning of Factory Mutual’s research efforts to support fire protection engineering.

With the development of the automatic sprinkler, Factory Mutual encouraged the installation of this new fire protection tool, and by 1901, most FM properties were protected by automatic sprinklers.

FM grew in influence and size to become one of the major insurers of highly protected risks (HPRs) worldwide, continuing the concept of using fire protection engineering to achieve property loss prevention. FM also continued to expand its research activities to meet the needs of fire protection engineering, including continued expansion of its large-scale fire testing capability.

Factory Insurance Association (FIA)
In 1890, 11 stock insurance companies banded together to form the Factory Insurance Association (FIA) for the purpose of writing insurance on sprinklered risks in competition with Factory Mutual. FIA had the same basic premise as FM: Industrial properties could be profitably insured if losses are kept to a minimum by utilizing good fire protection practices, that is, good construction, full automatic sprinkler protection and frequent inspections by qualified individuals. FIA became a major insurer of HPR facilities.

In 1975, FIA merged with the Oil Insurance Association and became Industrial Risk Insurers (IRI), and continued to expand its loss prevention services as a major HPR insurer. Throughout its growth and expansion, loss prevention through engineering inspection remained the cornerstone of IRI. In 1998, IRI was purchased by GE and became GE Global Asset Protection Services (GAPS). In 2006, GAPS was acquired by Swiss Re, and in 2007, Swiss Re was purchased by XL Insurance based in London.

National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU)
A conflagration in Portland, ME, in 1866 prompted the establishment of the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU). Initially formed to control fire insurance rates, NBFU, in response to a series of conflagrations in the U.S. from 1871 to 1889, became one of the major fire prevention organizations in the country. It was ultimately responsible for the development of the first model building code in the U.S., the National Building Code®, in 1905 and the first National Electrical Code in 1897.

In response to the Baltimore, MD, conflagration in 1904, NBFU created a municipal inspection system utilizing engineers to assess the ability of major cities and towns in the U.S. to prevent multiblock conflagrations. This evolved by 1916 into a system for grading cities and towns with reference to their fire defenses – the National Board Grading Schedule. The National Board survey engineers were also some of the early fire protection engineers.

From 1900 until 1965, the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU) printed and distributed free of charge the standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In 1965, NBFU became the American Insurance Association (later the American Insurance Services Group), ultimately phasing out its technical activities and its contributions to fire protection engineering.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL)
Insurance companies’ concerns about the fire risk of the electrical wiring of 100,000 Edison incandescent light bulbs at the Palace of Electricity at the World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1893 in Chicago resulted in the hiring of a young electrical engineer from Boston, William Henry Merrill, to ensure that the exhibition was safe. The success of this venture led Merrill, with the financial support of NBFU, to set up a laboratory to test the safety of electrical products which became Underwriters Laboratories. In 1901, the NBFU agreed to sponsor UL’s work beyond electrical, and by 1903, UL had begun fire performance testing of wired glass windows and tin-clad fire doors.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, UL grew to become a major independent, not-for-profit testing organization in North America and a leader in advancing the science of fire protection engineering.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
In 1896, in response to concerns about the reliability of automatic sprinkler systems due to a lack of standardization, a group of insurance company representatives formed the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to provide the science and improve the methods of fire protection and to circulate information on this subject. NFPA organized technical committees of experts to establish consensus on the design of fire protection systems and fire protection safeguards for various hazardous occupancies.

Throughout the 20th century, many of the advances in fire protection were brought about as a reaction to disastrous fires, and NFPA and its technical committees were instrumental in shaping the foundation of fire protection engineering. The rationale for fire protection engineering solutions was published in the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook.

Much of the knowledge base for fire protection engineering came from loss experience, the development of property loss prevention innovations and fire research conducted by these founding organizations.


FM and FIA were the first insurance organizations to utilize engineers as inspectors of highly protected risks (HPRs). The need for loss-control engineers forced both FM and FIA to create training programs in which graduate engineers could be educated as fire protection engineers. Many practicing FPEs got their fire protection engineering education and experience through these training programs.

A formal degree program in fire protection engineering was first established in 1903, when several prominent fire insurance executives and UL founder William Merrill joined forces to propose the establishment of the first FPE program in the U.S. at Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, IL. In 1940, Armour became the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

The IIT program was discontinued in 1985, but during its 82-year history, it produced over 1,000 FPE graduates. In 1956, the fire protection engineering program at the University of Maryland was established under the direction of Dr. John L. Bryan, and in 1979, the first master of science program in fire protection engineering was begun at Worcester Polytechnic Institute under the direction of David A. Lucht.

Over the years, a number of FPE degree programs have been established around the world, including programs in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Scotland, Hong Kong and Northern Ireland. Today, however, there are still fewer than a dozen FPE degree programs worldwide.

During the first half of the 20th century, building and fire codes and standards became the primary means of applying fire protection engineering for life safety and property protection. Lessons learned from catastrophic fires were applied to revise codes and standards, and improve fire regulations.

During this period, the body of knowledge to support fire protection engineering continued to grow. Much of this knowledge was influenced by and borrowed from other professions, including civil and mechanical engineering, architecture, psychology, and electrical and electronic engineering. Knowledge specific to fire protection engineering also began to emerge. It is impossible to cover all of the advancements, but some of the key ones are detailed below.

The rapid development of tall iron- and steel-framed buildings coupled with the performance of some buildings during the Baltimore conflagration of 1904 led to a desire to quantify fire resistance. The initial effort in the U.S. was led by Ira Woolson of the Civil Engineering Dept. of Columbia University. He set forth for the first time the technical basis for predicting fire behavior in buildings, the time-temperature curve. Standardized fire test methods for building elements were subsequently developed and became ASTM and NFPA standards. Similar efforts with similar results were undertaken in Europe.5

In 1914, the U.S. Congress authorized funds for the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to study fire resistance. Led by Simon Ingberg, significant advances were made in understanding the performance of building systems and elements when exposed to high-temperature fires. Fire resistance moved from detailed specification to a component-performance approach tied to the occupancy classification, and heights and area limitations established by building codes.5

The Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, which killed 602 people and was the deadliest fire in U.S. history until the World Trade Center terrorist attack, brought attention to the ignition and flame spread of curtains, drapery and scenery. A series of pass/fail tests were initially developed, and in 1922, Albert Steiner of UL developed a test method whereby the fire hazards of materials could be measured and classified with reference to the rate of spread of fire, the amount of fuel contributed to the fire and the production of smoke. The Steiner Tunnel Test ultimately became both an ASTM and NFPA standard.6

The first efforts to study human decisions and the movement of people in a building as a result of fire came about primarily due to disastrous major loss-of-life fires, including the Iroquois Theater fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 that killed 145 and the Coconut Grove fire of 1942 that killed 492. To prevent the recurrence of such tragedies, codes and standards were developed to address the number, location and availability of exits and their design, construction and interior finish materials. The NFPA Safety to Life Committee was formed in 1913, and NFPA’s Building Exits Code (later named the Life Safety Code®) was one of the first codes to address these issues in 1927.7

During the latter half of the 20th century, fire protection engineering as a unique engineering profession emerged. This emergence was primarily due to the development of a body of knowledge specific to fire protection engineering that occurred after 1950. The formation of a professional society, the beginnings of independent fire protection engineering consulting and the development of engineering guidelines for fire protection reinforced the profession.

Much of the body of knowledge supporting fire protection engineering was developed as a result of full-scale fire testing conducted to determine the appropriate fire protection needed to protect new industrial hazards and warehouse storage techniques. Some of the most important were tests on insulated metal deck roofs, palletized and other high-piled storage, heat and smoke vents, transformer protection, high-expansion foam, library book stacks, roll paper storage, rubber tire storage, high-rack storage and aerosol storage.

As a result of this testing, new sprinklers were developed with a wide variety of orifice sizes, thermal elements, special distribution patterns and operating pressure criteria. With the aid of the computer to analyze complex looped and gridded systems, hydraulic design of sprinkler systems virtually replaced pipe schedule systems. During this period, a number of new fixed fire protection systems were developed for use by fire protection engineers. These include halogenated fire extinguishing agents (halons) and later clean-agent halon alternatives, hi-ex foam and water mist. Smoke control systems were developed, and smoke detectors replaced heat detectors as the primary fire alarm system initiating device.

Although a professional society for fire protection engineers was originally proposed by NFPA Technical Secretary Robert Moulton in 1924, it wasn’t until 1950 that the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) was formed as a section of NFPA. SFPE’s first chapter, the Chicago Chapter, was formed in 1953. In 1971, SFPE separated from NFPA and became an autonomous technical-professional society.8

On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire in the Apollo 1 command module claimed the lives of three NASA astronauts during a routine launch pad test. This fire, which received worldwide attention, showed the lack of knowledge of NASA engineers of the hazards posed by the oxygen-rich environment of the module and pointed to the need for fire protection engineering expertise on the space project. As a result of this fire, fire protection engineers were hired as part of the NASA team.

Less than two weeks earlier, on Jan. 16, 1967, a fire at the McCormick Place exhibition hall in Chicago, IL, resulted in a multimillion-dollar loss during the National Housewares Manufacturers’ Association show. The building, which was the largest exhibition hall in the U.S. at the time and was thought to be “fireproof,” had been built in 1960 under a Chicago building code that allowed it to be not sprinklered on the basis of “limited combustibles” and the belief that the roof’s structure was sufficiently high to be out of danger from collapse due to fire.

The unprotected steel truss roof 37 feet (11 meters) above the floor collapsed in less than
30 minutes. The blue ribbon panel appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daly to investigate the fire was chaired by then-IIT professor and head of the Fire Protection Engineering Department Rolf Jensen. Under the panel’s direction, UL conducted a series of full-scale tests on simulated exhibit booths which showed the need for automatic sprinkler protection and established the fire-suppression criteria for exhibition halls throughout the world. These tests reinforced the need for full-scale fire research test data for fire protection engineering solutions. Two years later, Jensen formed his fire protection engineering consulting firm, Rolf Jensen and Associates (RJA).9

In February 1971, a fire occurred above the 30th floor of the office building at One New York Plaza in New York City. The difficulty encountered by the fire department in combating this fire highlighted growing concerns within the fire protection engineering community for fire safety in modern high-rise office buildings.

As a result of this fire, the General Services Administration (GSA) convened an international conference to develop solutions to the fire problem in high-rise buildings. Harold “Bud” Nelson, then with GSA, was the conference organizer and coordinator. The conference, known as the Airlie House Conference, concluded that fire protection for high-rise buildings was not keeping pace with high-rise building design.

In addition to establishing the basic fire protection engineering design parameters for high-rise buildings, including the need for automatic sprinklers, the conference determined that there was a need for a total systems concepts approach for high-rise fire safety.10

Under Nelson’s direction, GSA implemented many of the conference recommendations into the final design of the 32-story Seattle Federal Building, which became a model for high-rise fire protection design around the world. The Sears Tower in Chicago (at that time, the world’s tallest building) was under construction, and Chet Schirmer, president of Schirmer Engineering, utilized the systems concept in developing its total fire protection and life safety design, which included full automatic sprinkler protection. The GSA design approach led to the formal development and use of event logic trees for risk assessment and formation of the NFPA committee on Systems Concepts for Fire Protection that developed the NFPA Fire Safety Concepts Tree.1

In the late 1970s, the state of California established an examination for a P.E. registration in fire protection engineering (FPE). In 1981, as a result of the efforts of SFPE, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) made the FPE exam available on a national basis. Today, 46 states in the U.S. license FPEs.

The application of fire dynamics – the study of how materials ignite and burn, how heat is transferred in fires, how smoke moves in buildings and how fire grows from ignition to full-room involvement – emerged as the foundation for fire protection engineering solutions. The publishing in 1985 of Introduction to Fire Dynamics by Dougal Drysdale11 as a textbook for FPEs helped to further define the profession.

The publication of the SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering12  in 1988 was a major step toward broad distribution of the body of knowledge on fire protection engineering calculation methods.

In 2000, SFPE published the SFPE Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection,13which defined the overall process of performance-based fire protection engineering design.


At the onset of the 21st century, computational methods for determining a quantitative evaluation of fire protection continue to improve. These include fire severity and fire resistance to determine structural fire protection requirements; fire properties of materials such as rates of heat release, fire spread, smoke developed and smoke movement; and egress flow, and sprinkler and detector response. These methods, coupled with the computational power of today’s computers, have in turn resulted in the development of more user-friendly fire models for use by the fire protection engineer.

As the knowledge base expands and the models improve, there continues to be greater worldwide acceptance of the performance-based design approach to fire protection engineering. The review of fire scenarios and design fires have now become major elements of fire protection engineering design.

Performance-based design is currently used primarily for unique structures that cannot be adequately protected utilizing the existing prescriptive building and fire codes, or to determine engineering alternatives to prescriptive code requirements. More universal use and acceptance of performance-based design will come about as consensus is established on the performance objectives required for particular occupancies and hazards, as well as the design fires and scenarios that must be considered by the fire protection engineer.

Arthur Cote, P.E., FSFPE, is with Prometheus Fire LLC.

[Author’s note: The primary source of information for this article is Richardson, K. (Ed.) History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.]


  1. Richardson, K., “Historical Evolution of Fire Protection Engineering,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  2. Fitzgerald, P., Mawhinney, J., and Slye, O., “Water-Based Fire Suppression,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  3. Cote, A., “Founding Organizations,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  4. Milke, J., and Kuligowski, E., “Fire Protection Engineering Education Programs,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  5. Nelson, H., “Fire Severity and Fire Resistance,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  6. Nelson, H., and Slye, O., “Fire Properties of Materials,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  7. Nelson, H., “Human Behavior Factors,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  8. Lund, D., “Fire Protection Engineering Professional Societies,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  9. Maybee, W., “Events That Have Shaped the Profession,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  10. Hall, J., and Nelson, H., “Risk Assessment,” History of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2003.
  11. Drysdale, D., An Introduction to Fire Dynamics, John Wiley & Sons, Cichester, UK: 1985.
  12. Dinenno, P., (editor), SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1988.
  13. Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection Analysis and Design of Buildings, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2000.