What is the Difference in a Fire Science vs. Fire Protection Engineering Degree?

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What is Fire Science?

Fire science is the study of how fires start, how to prevent them, and how to suppress them. The term can refer to the science of fire in general aspect, or it can apply to a specialized area such as fire prevention, fire investigation, or fire services leadership. Fire science embraces all types of fires, whether they are forest fires, structural fires, flammable liquid fires, or controlled experimental fires.

What is Fire Protection Engineering?

It is one of the specialized areas of fire science. Fire protection engineering is the study of how building structures and their design affect fires. Learning about these influences helps engineers prevent and extinguish flames more effectively. The engineer becomes involved with the building inspections to determine their safety. They check in-house firefighting equipment, sprinklers, fire alarms, and smoke alarms. The purpose of the investigations is to determine if the structure complies with fire codes and the mechanics are in place to minimize fire damage and injury to occupants.

Coursework Overview

Fire protection engineering education focuses on the skill sets and field knowledge necessary to advance into an engineering role. To assume this role, you must be knowledgeable in the sciences of math and physics. You need the technical and mechanical skills to understand how fire protection systems work. The coursework may cover risk assessment, the economic impact of fires, and maximum occupancy calculations. The latter is where math is used to ascertain how many people can safely occupy a residential or commercial space.

This program will likely entail more fieldwork than fire science. The fieldwork may include visiting fire scenes and buildings under construction, watching the installation of sprinkler systems, or touring a fire equipment manufacturing plant.  The knowledge of building construction, for example, will enable students to develop data systems for calculating occupancy standards. These are based on the square footage of commercial, residential, and industrial structures.

Fire science may also cover some of the same areas as just mentioned. Some of the differences in the study plan might be the inclusion of courses in emergency management, public safety technology, fire investigation, and fire department administration. The curriculum tends to focus on the management aspects of emergency services, such as disaster planning, personnel management, fire research and prevention.

Education Options

The fire science degree allows you to ease into a two-year Associate program. Junior colleges, community colleges, online universities, and accredited fire schools offer a career-focused curriculum in fire science. Associate degree programs most commonly include one-third general education classes, a third of major courses and another third of elective studies.

RELATED: The 10 Best Online Fire Science Degree Bachelor’s Programs

The educational path of the more specialized profession of fire protection typically begins with an undergraduate degree. However, an Associate of Science in Fire Science usually provides sufficient course material covering fire prevention, protection, behavior, and history of fire. Therefore, this is an option before deciding to concentrate on fire protection engineering at the bachelor’s level.

Also, fire science at the associate’s degree applies to those in a firefighting role. Equally important, for each hour you complete by taking a fire science program, may be used to your requisite certification demands. These vary by state. Florida, for example, requires firefighters to complete 398 hours. Another example is Texas, whose Commission on Fire Protection mandates that firefighters perform 471 hours of training. Book learning can apply to these hours.

Firefighters usually expand their abilities by earning additional certifications; For example, it is beneficial for firefighters to know emergency medical procedures. There is an EMT certification. ,

Typically, fire protection engineers have a bachelor’s degree in fire science, engineering, or related field. There are those who began their career as a fire academy graduate or volunteer firefighter. Many fire protection agencies in the public sector prefer hiring candidates with firefighting experience. However, you can begin the academic portion with an associate’s degree in fire science. As needed, you can always opt to advance to a four-year fire protection engineering program.


One of the significant differences could be salary. According to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the starting salary in this field is $50,000. They report the median wage for the profession at $113,748 (2012 data). The results of a 2012 SFPE survey indicated that the average salary for a fire protection engineer is $70,000. This figure refers to individuals who have a bachelor’s degree and less than six years of experience. More experienced fire protection engineers can earn up to $96,200.  Senior-level engineers have an average salary of more than $128,000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median income for firefighters at $49,080 (May 2017). This salary is based on individuals with a high school diploma, a graduate of a fire academy, and have emergency medical training. According to Salary.com, the average Fire Fighter salary in California is $50,169 as of September 28, 2018, but the range typically falls between $37,627 and $62,711. Of course, you can expect salaries to differ according to the cost of living and other factors. Metropolitan areas generally pay more than smaller cities. Your education, certifications, experience, and other applicable skills will affect salary.

Additional Resources

What is the Benefit of a Degree in Fire Science vs. Emergency Management?

What is the Difference between Certifications and a Certificate in Fire Science?

What are my Master’s Degree Choices in Fire Science?