History may have remembered Nero unfairly. Though popular legend remembers him as the ancient Roman emperor who played the fiddle during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, a few historical details render that story less than truthful. First of all, the fiddle wouldn’t be invented for another thousand years; it’s more likely he played a lyre, though even that was a rumor, according to Tacitus, the senator and historian who immortalized the lives of ancient Romans.
In truth, Nero probably rushed to the aid of Rome, providing aid to the people out of his own pocket. What’s more, he enacted laws governing how structures could be built in the aftermath of the fire to prevent further disasters – fostering a program that was the progenitor of modern fire protection engineering.
Fire protection engineering is the field of study concerned with using engineering principles to keep people, structures and goods safe from fire. While everyone is interested to some degree in fire protection, engineering students who focus on this as their chosen vocation devote their lives to controlling and confining fire and smoke.
Fire protection engineering may involve designing systems to detect fires and control their spread. Fire protection engineers are charged with alerting people to danger and making sure they have a safe and direct route to safety should a fire ever strike.
These tasks fall under the heading of active fire protection, which is concerned with detection and suppression. Nero’s efforts, which included distancing new buildings from each other, making sure homes and other structures were built out of brick instead of wood, and creating more open space, could better be described as passive fire protection – the branch of fire protection engineering aimed at containing fires once they happened. In this, Nero was somewhat ahead of his time. Of course, he also used the open space to build an enormous statue of himself, and raised taxes on Roman citizens to pay for it. But Caligula, one of Nero’s predecessors, had tried to appoint his horse to an elected office, so the ancient Romans were used to this a bit of eccentricity in their leaders.
Today, passive fire protection attempts to slow the spread of fires by implementing sound fire protection engineering principles to contain fires to very small spaces. Fire protection engineers do this by using wall and floor materials with high fire-resistance ratings. They also insulate circuits and wiring to prevent electrical fires.
Active and passive fire protection are the main components of fire protection engineering, but fire protection engineers themselves may perform a variety of other tasks, including forensic investigations, product evaluations, and general engineering consulting services. They might also investigate fires themselves to find out how the systems designed to protect them could have been more effective.
Since the Great Fire of Rome nearly 1,950 years ago, fire protection engineers have made huge strides in developing systems that prevent and contain fires. The advent of advanced technologies like computers and other electronics has allowed fire protection engineering to work in concert with other branches of engineering, such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. The final result is that we’re all a bit safer.
And since Nero, no fire protection engineer has had a huge statue built in his honor. So, there’s that, too.