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Paving the Way for the Future of Fire Protection

Dr. James Milke, an Associate Professor in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, has contributed greatly to the field of fire protection throughout his academic career. In this interview, Milke discusses his courses, current research projects and his work with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Please provide a brief overview of your position as an Associate Professor in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland.

I play several roles, including teaching, research and administration. As Associate Chair, I act as the director of the undergraduate program and as the academic advisor to the undergraduate students in the department (there are currently about 110 undergraduate students in the major). I also schedule classes, and serve as the point of contact for prospective students and prospective employers of graduates. In addition, I am the co-director of the department’s distance graduate program.

The courses I teach vary from year to year, but they often address structural fire protection (undergraduate and graduate courses), smoke detection and management (graduate course), fire alarm and special hazard systems design (undergraduate course), hot topics in fire (undergraduate course) and human response to fire (graduate course).

My recent research activities cover topics in structural fire protection, smoke management, fire detection and water mist fire suppression.

You teach both undergraduate and graduate courses in fire protection engineering. What issues are currently of greatest interest to those students who plan to pursue careers in fire protection? How has student interest in fire protection changed since you first joined the University of Maryland faculty in 1977?

In my opinion, students’ principal interests seem to involve computer applications and fire investigations. One difference is that in the mid-1970s, a significant majority of students (all undergraduates) were firefighters. Now, students who are firefighters represent only about one-third of the undergraduate student population. Since the events of September 11, 2001, we have found that more students have an interest in fire protection engineering, though it will be interesting to see how long that memory will motivate new students to learn about fire.

How do you ensure that your course material reflects the latest fire protection engineering information? As a professor, how do you stay abreast of new developments in the fire protection field?

As a department, we stay in close contact with our alumni, both informally and formally through a curriculum advisory committee that meets twice a year. Personally, I receive several industry publications, and I also attend conferences and seminars. Conducting research and the background literature searches associated with that research help me to keep current. In addition, I find that participation in standards development committees is an outstanding way to learn about related research and design techniques.

Your courses cover such topics as structural fire protection, heat transfer, smoke management and hazard analysis. In your opinion, how can safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals best address each of these elements during the construction of new commercial and residential buildings?

First, SH&E professionals must understand the rationale for fire protection design requirements. For example, they should ask themselves why a particular fire protection system is present and why it has a particular set of performance characteristics. Secondly, SH&E professionals need to appreciate the limitations of the systems. Also, whenever calculations are provided to outline the fire protection systems to be included, it is essential for the analyst and reviewer to appreciate the scope and limitations of the calculation method and appropriateness of any input data.

You have performed fire-resistance analyses of many different types of structures. What methodology do you follow when conducting these analyses, and how do you help to develop strategies for improving fire resistance?

Most of my efforts in this area have involved calculations that analyze the temperature increase of a structural member as a result of exposure to a specified fire and then perhaps using that information to perform a structural analysis. To assess the temperature increase, I perform a heat transfer analysis. A heat transfer analysis can be completed in a spreadsheet format, or it can involve finite element computer models.

Your current research activities include the experimental evaluation of water mist systems. What is the status of this research thus far, and how will these systems be used to extinguish fires in water-sensitive areas?

We have worked on many projects in this area. In our initial work, we examined the performance of different water mist system designs to control fires involving a variety of commodities. For water-sensitive areas, we invited conservation professionals from the National Gallery of Art and other institutions to observe and measure the modest amount of water absorbed by artifacts. We also observed that computers could operate without any trouble even while a water mist system with a total flooding design discharged in the room. We have recently worked with Marioff to explore the performance of such systems for retrofit applications in residences, with off-campus student housing as one particular area of interest.

You are also involved in the development of a smart fire detector that can distinguish smoke from a fire and smoke from nuisance sources. How do you predict this device will impact the future of smoke detection?

My hope is that by decreasing nuisance sources, fire detectors can be much more effective. People will be less prone to disable detectors, as currently occurs if detectors provide numerous nuisance alarms, and people will take alarms more seriously if there are fewer unnecessary alarms.

In what ways can calculation methods estimate the fire resistance of structural members?

There are several ways, ranging from relatively elementary to fairly complex methods. One set of methods contained in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)/Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) 29 standard uses simple empirical correlations resulting from a data analysis of numerous standard fire tests. At the other end of the spectrum are computer models that determine the response of structural frames to “real” fires.

In 2003, you participated in an ASCE/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) investigation of fire and structural safety with respect to the World Trade Center disaster. What were the results of the structural fire protection analysis you conducted during the investigation? How have your findings influenced structural fire protection within the last three years?

That effort began in October 2001 and finished in June 2002. Our study focused largely on information gathering and relatively little on “analysis.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted most of the detailed analyses after we completed our study.

I am not sure what specific impact the FEMA report had on structural fire protection. Certainly, the events of September 11, 2001, the FEMA report and the NIST study have raised the awareness of professionals to the importance of structural fire protection. This subject received relatively little attention prior to September 11, but since then, there has been much more interest in the topic, with ongoing discussions on how to improve structural fire protection both in terms of the materials involved and the means of assessment.

How are you working with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to improve fire codes, public education and fire service training in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster?

I do not believe that any of my activities with the NFPA, its sections or affiliated organizations are in response to the World Trade Center disaster. I continue to be the chair of the Technical Committee on Smoke Management Systems, and I serve on a research technical panel of the Fire Protection Research Foundation for a project involving residential smoke alarms. Currently, we are conducting research on the “Stop, Drop and Roll” message funded by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Since 1989, I have taught a course titled “Principles of Fire Protection Engineering” with Dr. John Bryan. The SFPE and the International Fire Marshal’s Association jointly sponsor this course.


Dr. James Milke is an Associate Professor in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland. His principal areas of expertise include smoke management and analysis of the response of materials exposed to fire conditions. Milke’s current research activities include the:

  • Analysis of smoke management systems
  • Experimental evaluations of water mist system performance
  • Development of a smart fire detector
  • Formulation of calculation methods to estimate the fire resistance of structural members

He has served as a Research Fire Prevention Engineer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Center for Fire Research, as the Fire Protection Engineer for Fairfax County, Virginia and as a consultant to several organizations. He has also authored dozens of publications on fire detection, smoke management and structural fire protection.

Milke is a fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and a member of several professional associations, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). He is also a member of the Fire Council of Underwriters Laboratories, chairman of the NFPA Technical Committee on Smoke Management Systems and Chair of the ASCE/SFPE Structural Design for Fire Conditions Committee.

He is a 1994 recipient of the Robert E. Kent Outstanding Teaching Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Maryland and a 1995 recipient of the SFPE President’s Award.

Milke holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Ursinus College, a bachelor of science degree in fire protection engineering, a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland.