Off the Beaten Career Path

Protection Engineer's Mission Is Fire Safety

Sunday, May 29, 2005

As soon as Chris Jelenewicz walks into a building, he's looking for a way out. All of them, in fact.

Jelenewicz, 41, is a fire protection engineer, and he knows how important building design, sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and "means of egress" are for protecting people and property from destructive fires.

The work is very collaborative, and it requires consulting with the property owners, architects and other engineers. Fire protection engineers play an important role in all big construction projects. For instance, Jelenewicz's projects have included a basketball arena and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Jelenewicz, the engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, said his Bethesda-based group has about 4,600 members; he estimates that there are 8,000 practicing fire protection engineers across the country. Median starting pay is about $47,000 a year, according to the professional association's most recent survey; the industry mean is $85,000.

Fire protection engineers have undergraduate or graduate degrees in the subject, and many have experience working as paid or volunteer firefighters. The University of Maryland is among the few schools to offer degrees in fire protection engineering. The coursework is heavy on math and science, and Jelenewicz advises anyone interested in the field to take all the math they can handle as early as high school.

As in other engineering fields, women and minorities are underrepresented. Jelenewicz's group hopes to change that, especially given the shortage of qualified people in the industry. "We're looking to get anybody interested," he says.

-- Mary Ellen Slayter

© 2005 The Washington Post Company