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.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.