Code of Ethics

Are you ethically representing your engineering profession?

As professional engineers, we have a code of ethics to perform only in our area of expertise based upon education and experience. Many take this serious when designing plumbing systems, mechanical systems, and building structures. Unfortunately, frequently professional engineers do not take seriously the specification of fire sprinkler systems and the associated water supplies, fire pumps, standpipe systems, fire suppression systems and fire alarm systems.

With more than 40 years of designing, specifying and reviewing, and now more than 20 years investigating system failures, I see a very large number of “scope” type specifications for fire and life safety systems. Professional engineers would not write these types of specifications for plumbing and mechanical systems, but those same engineers will do that for the critical fire and life safety systems that are designed to protect human lives, property and firefighters.

I can provide numerous examples of specifications that are written by a professional engineer who has no business writing them. More importantly, they should not be signing or sealing those documents.

Specification writing and construction observation

There seems to be a thought process that as a professional engineer you can copy an old specification and send it to the design team for bidding. The fire protection contractors will figure it out because you didn’t; they’ll bid it the way they always do and magically it will be designed, installed and tested by the low bid contractor with no oversight from the engineer of record. That thought process continues that someone else will inspect these systems, and the fire and life safety system will then be in service as you intended from the beginning. What could possibly go wrong? The contractors are the experts, right? They certainly know more about fire and life safety systems than you do. Somebody else will inspect these systems. Do those inspectors know as much as you do?

If you carry errors and omissions insurance and you learn from the education they provide, you’ll know that lack of site observations (construction observation and administration) after writing specifications is a scenario that leads to problems. But, if you don’t know much of anything about the fire and life safety systems yourself, how can you convince the rest of the design team that you need to perform site observations on those systems?

Three things to do

We’ll look at three things you as a professional engineer can and should do better.

First, regularly attend classes to improve your education on fire and life safety systems. Designing protection systems is relatively easy if you understand the basic concepts. Specifying the appropriate design criteria is not that easy and includes several areas of research you’ve probably never done. Questions to ask: 

• Are you trying to control or suppress a fire? Do you know the difference?

• What is the occupancy? Occupancy isn’t the same as the Building Code or Fire Code occupancy; this is the fuel load based occupancy.

• What is the water supply? You need a test to tell you accurately. Is it adequate and reliable? Will it supply the flow and pressure required for your decision to control or suppress based upon the occupancy and fuel load? Do you need a fire pump?

• How do know how to interface the fire alarm and fire sprinkler system components?

• What are the mass notification requirements?

• Are there any special requirements from the insurance carrier, state or community?

Several professional organizations are more than willing to provide education and training. Fire alarm and fire sprinkler contractor associations, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and many large manufacturers (Tyco, Reliable, Viking, Kidde and so on) will welcome you to training (most for a fee). Two hours of training a year isn’t enough though; this has to be significant and dedicated training.

Second, throw out any old specifications you have. Rewrite them accurately, thoroughly and with current equipment and requirements for your specific project. White papers are written and available addressing the responsibilities of engineers and designers. It is clear that as the specifying engineer, you are responsible for the design, and the design cannot be correct if it is specified improperly, incompletely or not specified at all.

Finally, change your thought process regarding design, installation, inspection and testing of fire and life safety systems. Keep in mind:

a. Most fire protection contractors don’t have your client’s best interests in mind and could care less about your specification if it impacts their bottom line (profit).

b. Fire protection contractors make mistakes, too. Very few contractors have oversight within their office for design, and fewer review their installations for compliance with their own documents or the standards.

c. Fire protection contractors have the bottom line in mind, and that doesn’t always mean they will provide the proper protection. This is especially true of storage occupancy protection.

d. In general, no one entity is carefully and thoroughly reviewing contractor plans, calculations, designs or installations.

e. Annual inspections of fire protection systems are not intended to find design and installation deficiencies, and it is important that you understand this. If a fire protection system is designed, installed, tested, inspected and does not comply with the nationally accepted National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 72, Fire Alarm Code, or whatever standard is applicable to the type of system and its design, it is still wrong. The fire code is clear that a system that is installed improperly, even if inspected and accepted, but did not comply with the minimum standards, that system is still wrong, see below.  

f. Here is the follow up: annual inspections, sometimes by the same contractors that make the mistakes initially, are not intended to find any design or installation errors or mistakes. You read that right; after a fire protection system is installed, the inspection, testing, and maintenance standards assume it was correct and now those annual inspections do not look for design and installation errors.

System failures

System failures are not frequent. The NFPA annually publishes statistics on failures. The problem with those statistics is they don’t include water losses; they don’t include fire suppression systems (such as kitchen systems) failures; and they don’t investigate all of the fires that occur. So, those statistics are skewed with greater success than is achieved. My investigations of water losses due to freeze failures and fire losses due to kitchen hood design, kitchen exhaust design and kitchen suppression system design are never in those NFPA publications. Many freeze failures and restaurant fire damages are exacerbated by scope-type specifications, where the professional engineer has done little or nothing at all to coordinate the fire suppression systems with the mechanical systems, and certainly has not inspected or observed the final installations.

A new way of thinking

Fire protection system designers spend hours and years training and learning their trades. Some become very good and are very proficient, however, everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, professional engineers often don’t spend even a few hours a year learning about fire protection systems, but they still specify those systems and then rely on someone else to review and inspect the systems.

Design teams and professional engineers that are cutting corners and saving money by writing scope-type specifications for fire and life safety systems, are doing an injustice to their clients and the people that occupy those buildings. Those same design team members are not ethically representing their professions either.

Properly specifying fire protection systems does not fit into an architect’s small percentage of fee assigned to that discipline. Actually providing detailed design specifications and drawings takes education, experience and money, and that is an investment in the safety of those who occupy the structures and in protection of the property. l    

Scott A. Futrell, PE, FSFPE, CFPS, SET, CFEI, is a fire protection engineer with Futrell Fire Consult & Design Inc., in Osseo, Minnesota and has over 40 years’ experience designing, specifying and investigating fire protection systems. He is a Fellow in the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and a member several technical panels for the Fire Protection Research Foundation Projects. He can be reached by email at scottf@ffcdi.com, or visit www.ffcdi.com.

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