Exclusive: Engineering safer spaces with Chris Jelenewicz

March 4, 2024

Chris Jelenewicz’s reflects on journey to SFPE CEO and the innovative future he envisions for fire safety engineering

The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) are a leading organization dedicated to advancing the practice and application of fire protection engineering.

Steering this organization into new chapters of innovation and growth is Chris Jelenewicz, who has recently taken the reins as Chief Executive Officer.

With a history at SFPE that dates back to 2004, Jelenewicz’s ascension to CEO follows a series of roles that have positioned him at the forefront of the industry’s evolution.

His journey from Engineering Program Manager to Chief Engineer, and now CEO, underscores a career committed to enhancing the efficacy and reach of fire protection engineering worldwide.

In his new role, Jelenewicz will guide SFPE through a landscape marked by both challenges and opportunities.

The organisation’s mission—to refine engineering practices, broaden the scientific and technical knowledge base, and educate a global community on fire safety—remains more relevant than ever.

With a global membership exceeding 5,300, SFPE is at the vanguard of shaping the future of fire protection engineering.

Through its various programs, including the SFPE Fire Safety Conference & Expo and the publication of the SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering, the society aims to promote knowledge exchange, innovation, and professional development across the globe.

As the fire safety community looks to the future, the leadership of Chris Jelenewicz at SFPE symbolizes a commitment to excellence, innovation, and a safer world.

Duncan J. White, Managing Editor of Fire and Safety Journal Americas, sat down with Jelenewicz to delve into his vision for the SFPE, the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for fire safety engineering, and the strategic initiatives poised to shape the future of fire protection.

Could you share with us your journey within the SFPE leading up to your appointment as CEO?

Almost 20 years ago I started my journey at SFPE as its Engineering Program Manager.

In this position, I was responsible for promoting the competency of fire protection engineers.

This included working with SFPE volunteers to write questions for the PE exam in fire protection, develop model curricula for university programs in fire protection engineering, start SFPEs ABET program, and develop programs that promote fire protection engineering as a profession.

In 2015, I moved into the Technical Director/Chief Engineer position where I was responsible for SFPEs technical content, including becoming Technical Editor for SFPEs Fire Protection Engineering magazine.

2015 was an exciting year for me as I was also named an SFPE Fellow.

In April 2023, I was appointed Interim CEO and officially became SFPEs CEO in January 2024.

What is your vision for SFPE under your leadership?

As CEO, I am committed to ensuring SFPE stays focused on advancing the fire protection engineering profession.

This may sound like a simple response, but today, with all of society’s demands, it is easy for professional organizations to lose focus on their core mission.

As such, I want to continue advancing our mission of defining, developing, and advancing the use of engineering best practices, expanding the scientific and technical knowledge base, and educating the global fire safety community to reduce fire risk.

At the same time, the SFPE is focused on promoting the hard work of the SFPE Foundation in its mission to enhance the scientific understanding of fire and its interaction with the social, natural, and built environments.

What do you perceive as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the fire engineering community today?

Having a competent workforce that meets the demands of the design and construction industry has always been a challenge for our profession.

The demand for fire protection engineers far outpaces the supply.

There are not enough competent engineers to fill all the open positions.

This offset in demand often results in underqualified individuals practicing fire protection engineering.

Another challenge is keeping up with the emerging technical trends in the design and construction industry.

Many of these challenges result from materials and technologies that are developed to facilitate sustainability in the built environment, which have introduced unintended fire hazards and risks.

These include fire safety issues related to mass timber construction, the building envelope, transportation, and energy storage systems, to name a few.

Other emerging problems that our profession faces are the mitigation of wildland-urban interface fires, cybersecurity for fire protection systems and the increasing role of digitalization and artificial intelligence.

When looking at opportunities, our most significant opportunity is continuing to grow as a global organization.

Over the last ten years, we have seen a spike in the number of members and chapters outside the United States.

However, we must keep up this momentum to become a global organization.

Another opportunity I would like to build on is developing partnerships with other international fire safety organizations.

Can you discuss any key strategic initiatives you plan to implement to address these challenges and opportunities?

In 2023, the SFPE Board of Directors worked with the SFPE staff to develop a new strategic plan.

This strategic plan focuses on four strategic initiatives: 1) advocate for the role of fire engineering in innovation and emerging issues, 2) increase the competency of fire protection/fire safety engineers, 3) develop opportunities for the fire protection engineering profession to influence & elevate sustainability in the built environment, and 4) set up SFPE for global success.

We will remain committed to advancing these strategic initiatives as they fall in line with the challenges and opportunities that I previously mentioned.

Additionally, as part of its Grand Challenges Initiative, the SFPE Foundation has recently published four white papers that are focused on developing a 10-year plan for research, education, and outreach in the areas of 1) energy and infrastructure, 2) digitalization, AI and cybersecurity, 3) climate change and 4) resiliency and sustainability.

We believe this initiative will address some of our profession’s future challenges.

Considering the rapid technological advancements, what emphasis will SFPE place on education and training for fire safety professionals?

SFPE has always been a leader in providing professional development for the profession.

Our conferences, webinars, and seminars have filled the demands of our profession.

However, with all the rapid technological advancements impacting our profession, in 2022, we started a series of engineering solutions symposiums that focused solely on one emerging topic.

The first symposium focused on the challenges of storage. In 2023, we hosted two successful seminars. One on the topic of mass timber construction and the second on sustainability.

These symposia give us the opportunity to really dig into a specific emerging topic and hear how other fire protection engineers are dealing with it.

Our next symposium will be held on June 4-6 in Phoenix, Arizona, focusing on “Progress with Li-Ion Battery Fire Safety: Engineering Solutions to Mobility and Storage Hazards.”

In what ways do you plan to foster global collaboration and knowledge sharing among fire safety professionals?

SFPE promotes global knowledge in our profession by publishing the SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering.

The 6th edition will be published this year and will include lots of new material on emerging issues and important updates on existing content.

This Handbook is the body of knowledge for our profession and is used by practitioners globally.

We are also working on a new Performance-Design Standard and the 3rd edition of the SFPE Guide to Human Behaviour in Fire, which are being developed by a diverse group of fire protection engineers with different industry perspectives.

We are also working on developing technical documents on fire exposures in structural design, fire scenarios, existing buildings, and computer models.

With the upcoming 15th SFPE Fire Safety Conference & Expo on Performance-Based Design what should attendees expect from the event?

We are excited to be hosting our 15th SFPE Fire Safety Conference & Expo on Performance-Based Design in Copenhagen on April 17-19, 2024.

Over the last 30 years, this conference has significantly advanced how our profession looks at performance-based fire safety design worldwide.

The event features three days of presentations, case studies, live discussions, and networking with global experts on current and future trends in fire regulatory systems for performance-based design.

My favorite part of the conference is the case studies, where teams from different countries are asked to complete a performance-based design for a unique building.

Finally, what do you hope to achieve during your tenure as CEO, and what legacy do you aspire to leave in the realm of fire safety and protection engineering?

I hope the entire world will understand that fire protection engineers work hard every day to reduce fire risk.

With this understanding, I hope to see more people enter this exciting profession so we can all work together to be the leaders of engineering a fire-safe world.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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