If you haven't felt that tinge of anxiousness in the air, then you probably aren't spending time near someone taking the 2017 PE Exam.
This Friday over 200 professionals throughout the world will sit for the eight-hour Fire Protection P.E. Exam. It's a recognized mark of competency and for those taking the exam, a major milestone in his or her career.
In May of this year we published the 2017 MeyerFire PE Prep Guide, which introduced over 100 new questions, additional tips and references, and major revisions to the 2016 Guide. It was nothing short of a monstrous effort to compile the new 376-page volume. In addition, in June we launched a 20-week Weekly Exam Series in an effort to provide more practice while simulating actual exam conditions. This was joined by our continued free Daily PE Problems throughout the summer.
While this year was a big step up in involvement, it also was a very positive experience. We have had probably our most involved group of test takers to date, both in the number of questions posed, comments on the daily problems, and lively discussions in the PE Prep Facebook Group. A handful of last year's examinees provided real-time feedback in the Facebook discussions and a couple helped us compile new daily problems for this year.
There have been some learning curves on my end that cropped up this summer - namely needing better editing on my part as we had (in my opinion) too many errata updates to the 376-page guide. We will be incorporating all of those updates in the 2018 Guide. Another improvement I'm wanting for 2018 is to open up my availability late in the fall (September & October) better one-on-one help. I'll be exploring ways to better share and discuss content between now and next summer in that regard.
This summer I have again been impressed by how hard and thorough so many test takers are in their preparation. We've had some of the most in-depth content discussions around prep material of any summer to date. It seems as though the more problems and content we're able to distribute, the more discussion and depth everyone is able to soak up. It's certainly a good thing from a learning perspective.
For those taking the exam this week, remember that each year there's always some subject that appears completely out of nowhere. Just remember that those are just as surprising to everyone else taking the exam, and, some of those questions may not even be scored but rather trial questions for future exams. Do your best and forget the rest.
For those not taking the exam but know someone that is, give him or her a hug. Or don't, because that creeps people out - but do encourage beforehand and help celebrate with them afterwards. It's a big effort and for many an anxious time, but can be just as rewarding as well.
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I grabbed something different this week and revisited the classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If you have not read the short fiction, it is centered around Guy Montag, a fireman in the near future who ignites rather than fight fires.
His dystopian world is governed by invasive mass media and a real fear for independent ideas and thought. People have little time or regard for each other or any thirst for knowledge, rather preferring information that are “digest of digests”, compoundings of simple summaries so vanilla and basic as to not offend any for feeling unintelligent.
While we don’t live in the exact environment Bradbury describes, there are parallels to our current day. Ever passed someone with a cell phone that wouldn’t recognize your existence? Ever get the impression like mass media is invasive, or a source of constant noise?
Fire in the novel is the tool by which this dystopian society denounces and discredits individual thought, effectively censoring anything that could be considered contrary to public needs. The title gets its name from the autoignition temperature of a book (although we know now that books self-ignite at ranges of temperatures which are dependent upon the materials).
Besides using fire as a theme throughout the novel to describe the pains of censorship, I find the biggest parallel to our industry is concept of individual knowledge growth. Knowledge or true independent thought cannot be gained simply by asking "how". Rather, it can be far more important to ask "why?".
We live by standards. In fire protection, especially in the United States, we are constantly in the realm of prescriptive code requirements whose rules we commit to memory and treat in high regard.
But why are those rules in place? It is not enough to simply know how plans are arranged, systems are installed, or how inspections are conducted. Our value as an expert is all about understanding the why, or the importance and implications behind the rules.
What is the good of experience if you've never stopped to ask why?
I have experienced several times in group or teaching environments where where learners want to know the how but not the why. How to lay out sprinklers with a given obstruction? How to layout fire alarm appliances for a movie theater?
How to orient branch piping for a dry system in a parking garage?
As a teacher it can be easy to deliver the how and provide a solution. But how much is lost in the opportunity to learn and teach in that moment? We fail our understudies if we don't provide ample reasoning as to why decisions are made or solutions are suggested. Our goal is to develop knowledgeable thought leaders, not machines that duplicate past work.
As a learner it can be all too easy and tempting to find short term solutions without digging deeper. In the design and construction industries, time can be our most valuable asset which does not lend itself to long duration of self study.
In order to make our experience translate to wisdom, we must ask why.
Good engineering judgement, often related to experience (but not necessarily a guarantee from it) is built upon a constant thirst for learning and growth. That thirst may be what brought you here.
I won’t even pretend to say that I’ve captured the why behind such a deep and varied engineering discipline like fire protection. It will be many years and many challenges before I will begin to scrape the surface of understanding much of the why behind our profession.
But I will make the most of that journey by asking why.
"I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody." - Lily Tomlin
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Joseph Meyer, PE, owns/operates his own Fire Protection Engineering practice in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.