Fire Engineer

In the world of engineering, the range of disciplines or specialisations into which an engineer can venture is really quite extensive, even though the types of degrees available are relatively limited in terms of the options at South African universities. In this instance, for example, your degree in mechanical engineering, will enable you to pursue a career as a fire engineer.

In the world of engineering, the range of disciplines or specialisations into which an engineer can venture is really quite extensive, even though the types of degrees available are relatively limited in terms of the options at South African universities. In this instance, for example, your degree in mechanical engineering, will enable you to pursue a career as a fire engineer. A fire engineer is that specialist engineer and expert technical consultant who understands the nature, characteristics, dynamics and mechanisms of fire and has an in-depth knowledge of how to prevent, extinguish and where needed investigate a post-fire situation. Minimizing the risk of fire and of fire spreading is part of the fire engineer’s role in a new or refurbished building’s design. The topic is not only scientific but also legal, psychological, physiological, sociological and as a fire engineer you may find yourself working within any range of sectors or industries. As an example, you may work in a project within the property sector designing the fire detection and protection system of a huge mall or car manufacturing plant or you may be involved in writing a report on fire strategy for a government authority or a bank’s computer room. A fire engineer could be found doing evacuation time analysis and smoke control management in an aircraft hangar or even an art gallery or museum. Fire engineers do not only get involved in design, they may also focus their attention on investigation, research, development, testing, operation and maintenance. Where there’s smoke, there’s probably a fire… engineer who’ll be there soon.

For more information, please go to The Institution of Fire Engineers (South African Branch).

As a fire engineer you will typically be involved in the design of fire prevention, detection, suppression, protection and life safety systems and processes. You will need to understand the behaviour of all materials, components and processes to further the goal of the protection of people, property and the environment from fire. As a team member you will work closely with your colleagues in creating detailed or rational designs, development of specifications and providing technical advice. Your team may likely extend beyond colleagues to other engineering disciplines involved in multi-disciplinary projects, architects, contractors and your relationship building skills will further be key in your client interactions. Your responsibilities might include the design of features in buildings that will help to prevent and detect fire and also control and reduce damage by both fire and smoke. Your computer models will predict fire behaviour in different structures and should a fire occur, you may then need to conduct an investigation and analyse how features performed and could possibly be the expert witness in court case. Your role may also involve the purchase and installation of fire protection systems, including modification and maintenance thereof. Fire engineers inspect buildings or building designs to check for statutory compliance and to ensure that potential problems in various elements of the fire safety system are avoided. You will write technical reports that demonstrate an understanding of the integration and interaction of fire safety systems and be able to present very technical topics to different audiences. The fire engineer performs complex reviews of plans and specifications for fire related services and a keen understanding and adhering to codes for fire and life safety underpin the work that is done. A fire engineer is responsible for remaining up-to-date with concepts, practice and technologies in their field and should ensure that these are incorporated into the design process. 

Having a fundamental understanding of project management principles and skills in project planning, stakeholder management, quality management, project risk identification and mitigation, procurement, budgeting and human resource management will take a fire engineer to the next level of their career.

You will likely be based in a professional office environment though regular site visits will generally also form part of your work circumstances. This might be both urban and rural, depending on where your projects are based. Where you are required to visit sites, travel may be quite extensive and you may also find that you need to travel across borders for work.   

Working hours typically extend beyond normal hours, though weekend or shift work is not usually necessary.

Though you may probably need to work for an employer to gain the relevant experience at the start of your career, self-employment for qualified engineers who have established their reputation is also possible.

A typical day at the office will require a lot of communication, meetings, much autonomy to make decisions and will be fairly unstructured. The use of computers, software, hardware and technology is key to effectively functioning as a fire engineer.

Your path to becoming a fire engineer requires that you study and attain a BSc or BEng Mechanical Engineering degree from a South African University. This will normally take you a minimum of four years, which means you will have achieved an Honours level qualification. The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) maintains a list of accredited degrees and if your qualification is included on their list, you become eligible to apply to become professionally registered after achieving the relevant competence and experience levels as stipulated. Should your degree not be recognized by ECSA, your qualification will still be evaluated to determine equivalency to an accredited South African degree. Upon meeting ECSA’s academic requirements you will be eligible to become a Candidate Engineer, which is one of the first steps you should take after graduating to set your direction towards getting to professional registration and in that way enriching your career options.

As indicated, your first step on the path to becoming a fire engineer is through the discipline of mechanical engineering. At this stage you may then specialise into the field of fire engineering through subsequent structured learning programmes and courses and work experience. It is however notable that fire engineering is not yet recognised by ECSA as a separate discipline. The field of fire engineering in South Africa is still developing in terms of education and training and professional bodies like The Institution of Fire Engineering is playing an important role in the development of this career path.

Besides for your engineering and scientific knowledge and technical prowess, a fire engineer will need a key set of skills and attributes to create the conditions for building their career successfully.

Relationship management and communication skills in dealing with a broad range of people will underpin a sustainable career. Written communication skills are similarly important. A fire engineer will have many times where they will be faced with pressure and time management is a necessary skill in this respect, as is resilience, adaptability and the ability to manage stress. Planning and organisational skills will further empower a fire engineer to be effective, as will critical thinking, analysis and problem solving skills through which logic and reasoning ability can be applied to identify the pros and cons of solutions and alternative solutions to the problems being tackled. The application of sound judgement and decision making are likewise essential.

As you progress in your career, your ability to manage a project independently and coordinate the inputs from different team members and specialists with the aim of delivering a quality product within budget and time constraints, becomes imperative. Even now, remember relationship management.

Please also see the Discipline Specific Guidelines provided by ECSA for Mechanical Engineers

Mechanical

  • IIE MSA
  • University of Cape Town
  • University of Johannesburg
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Nelson Mandela University
  • North West University
  • University of Pretoria
  • University of the Witwatersrand


Electrical

  • IIE MSA
  • University of Johannesburg
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Nelson Mandela University
  • North West University
  • University of Pretoria
  • University of the Witwatersrand

Industrial

  • University of Johannesburg
  • Nelson Mandela University
  • North West University
  • Stellenbosch University
  • University of Pretoria
  • University of the Witwatersrand