The Fire Protection Engineering Design Professional
Remembering Rolf Jensen
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008
Rolf Jensen obtained his fire protection and safety engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 1951. The early part of his career was spent at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), where he rose to the position of associate managing engineer. In 1965, after 12 years with UL, Rolf accepted the position of associate professor of fire protection engineering at his alma mater, IIT. He was promoted to professor and chairman of the Fire Protection Engineering Department in 1966.
In 1967, the McCormick Place exhibition hall in Chicago, Illinois, was severely damaged by a multi-million-dollar fire that occurred during preparations for a National Housewares Manufacturers’ Association show. McCormick Place, built in 1960, was the largest exhibition hall in the United States and was thought to be "fireproof." It was built under a Chicago building code that allowed high-ceilinged, steel-and-concrete buildings to be built without sprinklers on the basis of "limited combustibles." The unprotected, exposed-steel truss roof, 37 feet (11 meters) above the floor, collapsed in less than 30 minutes due to the high fuel load on the exhibit floor.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daly appointed a blue ribbon committee to investigate the fire and named Jensen chairman. Under his direction, the committee had UL conduct a series of full-scale tests on simulated exhibit booths. These tests, which generated ceiling temperatures high enough to collapse and melt unprotected steel in as little as 6 1/2 minutes, showed the need for automatic sprinkler protection and established the fire suppression criteria for exhibition halls throughout the world.
From 1967 to 1973, Jensen edited a series of fire protection articles for Actual Specifying Engineer magazine. These articles formed the basis of his book Fire Protection for the Design Professional, which helped establish fire protection engineering as part of the design process.
In 1969, Rolf formed his fire protection engineering consulting firm Rolf Jensen and Associates (RJA). In 1975, he left IIT to manage and build the firm, which became one of the largest fire protection engineering consulting firms in the United States.
Rolf supported and participated in NFPA’s standards-development process throughout his career. He served on more than a dozen NFPA technical committees, including the Automatic Sprinkler Committee, on which he served from 1966 until his death in 2002. As a Sprinkler Committee member, he was the first chairman of the Residential Subcommittee, which was responsible for developing the first edition of NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Mobile Homes, published in 1975.
Although little used, this first edition of NFPA 13D prompted the U.S. Fire Administration to fund research on residential sprinkler technology for life safety, which led to the development of a quick-response residential sprinkler. The 1980 edition required this new sprinkler.
In 1974, Rolf became chairman of the newly formed New Technology Subcommittee of the Automatic Sprinkler Committee. Under his direction, the subcommittee reviewed new technologies in sprinkler design, sprinkler systems, and related equipment that were submitted to the NFPA committee for acceptance and recommended ways to include them in the standard. These technological innovations include quick-response, early suppression fast-response, extended-coverage, extended-coverage sidewall, large-drop, large-orifice, and extra-large-orifice sprinklers, as well as new piping materials such as lightweight steel and plastic.
Rolf was a charter member of the NFPA Standards Council when it was formed in 1974 and a member of the NFPA Board of Directors from 1990 to 1996. In 1988, the Standards Council awarded him the Standards Medal for contributions to the development of NFPA’s codes and standards. In 1997, he was awarded the Paul C. Lamb Award, the highest award NFPA bestows on members for their volunteer spirit and service to NFPA. NFPA’s Public Education award, established in 1994, is named in his honor.
Rolf Jensen’s experience, expertise, and knowledge established him as a consummate fire protection engineering design professional.
Art Cote, P.E., FSFPE, is NFPA’s former vice-president of Engineering and chief engineer.