Deborah Boice, the new president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, on diversity, convincing students to pursue careers in the field, and more
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2011
Deborah Boice credits a dedication to her field, not her gender, as the reason she was recently elected the first female president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), a 5,000-member organization that advances the science and practice of fire protection engineering. A member of NFPA, she has served on SFPE’s board of directors since 2002, including four years as director, and was president of its Southern California Chapter for two years. Boice, 46, has worked for the past 24 years for insurer Swiss Re, formerly Industrial Risk Insurers. Based in Mission Viejo, California, she currently manages property insurance sales in the western United States through the company’s Corporate Solutions team.
In her new role with SFPE, Boice is once again pursuing opportunities to advance her field. She hopes to diversify and expand the engineering workforce by convincing more women, students, and minorities that a career in fire protection engineering has its rewards, especially as job opportunities in the field continue to broaden. SFPE and NFPA have a long history of collaborative projects, such as a joint effort to update one of its handbooks and produce new seminars, including a course at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in Boston June 12–15. NFPA Journal recently spoke with Boice about this collaboration, as well as how to get students excited about fire protection and why a job in the field is anything but mundane.
As SFPE’s first female president, do you see yourself as a role model of some kind?
I’ve always prided myself on being capable of doing my job regardless of my sex. I didn’t seek out the role of president, per se. When I was involved in SFPE’s Southern California Chapter and the board of directors, I sought out opportunities to serve my profession. And a nice side benefit of that was that I was capable of doing what was requested of me and eventually I was elected president, which is a nice accolade.
I want women to pursue fire protection engineering because they have a passion for it and a desire to give back to their communities as new buildings get constructed and new companies come into their cities. I’d love to see more women come into the field for this reason and not because we need a specific diversity quota. I really want them to pursue this field because it’s their passion.
What are your plans for diversifying the current workforce?
We need to let women and minorities know that there are opportunities in this field and that the demand continues to outweigh the supply. Many new students are looking for a larger purpose with their career choice. They want to make a social impact as a result of their work. Their careers of choice are with companies that benefit their communities and make a difference in people’s lives. We want to make them aware that a career in fire protection engineering can meet these personal goals and make use of their natural aptitude for mathematics and science.
Recently, SFPE changed its recruitment messages about the profession of fire protection engineering, making these messages more interesting to women and minorities. The messages now focus on how fire protection engineers make a difference by making our world safe from fire and how a career in fire protection engineering pays well, provides opportunities for world travel, and offers the chance to work in a variety of environments.
Our goal is to use these messages in all of our career activities, such as writing a new version of the SFPE Guide to Careers in Fire Engineering and attending career fairs. SFPE is also using social media as a way of attracting new engineers. For example, we’ve found that our “Careers in Fire Protection Engineering” page on Facebook has been very attractive to women and minorities.
There are roughly 600 college students enrolled in fire protection engineering programs in the United States. Is this number where it needs to be?
There’s always a concern about making sure we have enough fire protection engineers coming through the college curriculum. I would love to see this figure be higher. The demand is there to support it. Obviously, we’ve seen tough economic times so that demand is lower than it was in the past. If we can get our message out there and do a better job with it, especially in the elementary, junior high, and high schools, hopefully students will start feeding into the college programs that are available. There are situations where fire protection engineers could be utilized where they aren’t being tapped.
There are building and planning departments in the United States that don’t have access to fire protection engineering resources, and they often will defer to another authority having jurisdiction. That’s fine, as long as the expertise is there. But I think there are a number of opportunities where fire protection engineers could be utilized.
Speaking from experience, I have a chemical engineering degree and was trained by my company to be a fire protection engineer and later licensed, mainly because my company supported that move. When I was hired by Industrial Risk Insurers, [now Swiss Re], we covered what back then we called “highly protected risks.” In order for us to help our insured better protect their assets — and also to protect our own insurance on the line — we used to survey the facilities we insured, and we’d provide recommendations with a fire protection slant on ways to better protect the facilities.
If you were to look at the SFPE membership, you’d find that there are a lot of folks with backgrounds similar to mine. Their degrees are in something else, but they apply their experience and knowledge to develop into fire protection engineers.
How will you attract prospective students to this field?
We’re trying to foster interest with students and help them see there are opportunities in fire protection engineering, and hopefully they’ll attend a college or university that has one of these programs. Internationally, there are about 14 colleges and universities that offer degree programs in fire protection engineering. SFPE has developed a Chemistry of Fire Teacher’s Kit, which is something chemistry instructors at the high-school level can use as a teaching tool. The interactive program includes lesson plans and a DVD that demonstrates experiments included in the lessons.
We’ve also developed career guides specific to jobs in this field. Fire protection engineering is a field and degree not even known by many guidance counselors. That’s why we’re attending this year’s conference of the American School Counselor Association, which represents this group. SFPE has also developed a model bachelor’s degree curriculum that can be used by universities that wish to develop a program. California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo began a fire protection engineering master’s program in the fall of 2010, which is the first West Coast program. That’s a huge accomplishment, because the other options are predominantly East Coast or internationally focused.
What educational efforts are occurring internationally?
In 2009, three universities collaborated on an international fire protection engineering master’s degree program: Ghent University in Belgium, Lund University in Sweden, and the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. The two-year course consists of four semesters of 30 credits each. The education is mobile, with a possible change in study location after each semester, giving the students the opportunity to gain from the strengths and expertise of all three schools.
How are you getting the message out?
We’re trying to keep up with technology. We’re now on Facebook, and we blog about the society’s activities. There’s also a junior engineering technical society through SFPE that promotes engineering as a career. Chapters also do outreach in their communities. If a high school is having a job or career fair, they go and give presentations.
How has SFPE collaborated with NFPA?
SFPE and NFPA have partnered to jointly develop the fourth edition of the Fire Alarm Signaling Systems Handbook. The first edition of this book was created through a partnership developed in 1987.
We also offer educational courses in topics related to fire protection engineering as part of NFPA’s Open Registration Seminar Series. For the first time last year, NFPA agreed to pilot the SFPE Advanced Fire Alarm Design Seminar during five of the NFPA Professional Development Weeks. The course is aimed at individuals who have experience with NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, but want to expand their knowledge in the area of fire alarm system design. The course reviews the process of performance-based design and applies it to the design of fire alarm systems. It describes how to develop a stakeholder committee, distill performance objectives from stakeholder goals, reduce performance objectives to performance criteria, and apply performance-equivalent alternative designs. The seminar also addresses the use of fire dynamics and the role of fire modeling in the design process and design documentation.
Since the advanced fire alarm design course was considered a success, what’s next?
We will once again offer the course during another five NFPA Professional Development Weeks this year, and we will present our smoke management course for the first time during NFPA’s Conference & Expo in Boston in June.
The smoke management seminar is intended for professionals who review the design of smoke management systems. Certain subjects are covered in NFPA 92A, Smoke Control Systems Utilizing Barriers and Pressure Differences, and NFPA 92B, Smoke Management Systems in Malls, Atria, and Large Spaces. The discussion will focus on providing a basis for evaluating critical design assumptions, the proper use of design tools, and acceptable levels of performance. Case studies will provide examples of properly designed systems versus systems where design deficiencies can be identified.
How do you plan to complete everything you set out to accomplish in your term as SFPE president this year?
The presidential term is a fairly short one — it’s only one year — so you have to be pretty proactive and hit the ground running. I’m surrounded by a number of smart fire protection engineers. If I have any issues or concerns, I have these great people to fall back on. I’ve also been on SFPE’s board for a number of years and know how the organization operates. I’ve welcomed this opportunity, and I know it’s going to be a productive year.
— Interview conducted by NFPA Journal staff writer Fred Durso, Jr.