Delving into the unique career of a Fire Safety Engineer

We recently sat down with fire safety consultant, Amy Dowie to discuss her career in fire safety engineering. Since her first involvement with fire safety engineering while studying at university, Amy has gone on to manage a range of projects and developments across Australasia. Now an award-winning engineer currently working on her Masters in Fire Protection Engineering, Amy talks about her experience in the industry to date as a professional and as a woman in a sector often overrepresented by men. She pinpoints some of the greatest obstacles in encouraging the next generation of female engineers into the profession and tells us about her next chapter in life as a new mother.

How did you find your way into fire safety engineering?

Mathematics and science have always interested me. I remember my mother once gave me some science books as an Easter present and I was so happy! As I got a bit older a pathway to engineering naturally unfolded for me during high school, and culminated in me studying for my bachelor’s degree in engineering at the Australian National University, where I majored in electrical and biomedical engineering.

I first dipped my toe in the construction industry through a part-time job I had at university. At the time, there was a lot of construction going on at the university, so I got involved in representing students with disabilities and communicated their needs and concerns regarding access to and around the buildings.

I moved into fire safety engineering toward the end of my undergraduate degree after seeing an advertisement for Warringtonfire, the company I now work for, as I thought it sounded quite exciting. I began working part-time and quickly decided once I had graduated, to stay on and pursue a career as a fire safety engineer.

Can you name some of your most rewarding projects?

A project that I’m particularly proud of centred around a large combustible cladding audit. Despite being only 18 months into my career, I managed risk assessments on 106 buildings across 70 sites in just two months, all during the COVID pandemic. It was an intense experience balancing safe working practices on site, as all the data had to be sourced in person.. However, it was a vital process to ensure the buildings, some of which were hospitals and schools, remained safe.

Thanks to this project and the high level of client satisfaction, it helped me win the Young Achiever of the Year Award from the Fire Protection Association of Australia, which I was very grateful to receive.

My latest work involves developing a fire safety plan for an electric vehicle (EV) carpark. This has presented a technical challenge as there isn’t much guidance for the EV industry yet, so we are trying to specify appropriate fire safety systems based on limited research.  

What particular challenges do you see in getting fire safety engineering out there as a possible career option, particularly for women?

A big issue is the lack of awareness of the industry. People don’t know that fire engineering careers exist. Indeed, many of the people I work with in the industry never planned on working in fire safety, even though it’s so fulfilling.

Equally, there aren’t a wide range of courses available devoted to fire safety engineering, especially at university level, so that makes it difficult for future engineers to access this career, and for it to be shared. This means there is a whole host of young female engineers that can potentially get overlooked.

However, to encourage more students into fire safety engineering, Warringtonfire attends university career days to create greater awareness of the industry.

What has your own experience been like as a woman in the industry, and what does your future hold?

While an even gender split is the aim for many industries, in construction the target is closer to 25% female representation. For perspective, currently in Australia and New Zealand, this split stands at around 13% and 19% respectively. Although challenging, this is something that is important to me.

In my early days as an engineer, often I’d be the only woman in stakeholder consultation meetings. On top of that, I’d find that I was the youngest, so I initially found it daunting to have to assert myself in such an environment. However, in my experience, it makes such a difference when you are not the only woman in the room. This is why proactively pushing for greater female representation is so important to me. For example, I joined the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). Through the association, I’ve contributed to organising many different events and supporting the local community.

Certainly, things are going in the right direction, and you can definitely feel the cultural shift taking place. It’s a bit slower in this industry, but I’m optimistic. I want people to know that there are multiple ways of being an engineer, regardless of gender..

As for me? I’ll hopefully have completed my masters by the end of next year and by the time this interview comes out, I’ll also be figuring out life as a new mother and working out when I’ll be returning to work. It’s an aspect of inclusivity I hadn’t really considered before finding myself in the position I am in now. Fortunately, Warringtonfire provides generous maternity support, which gives me peace of mind and allows me to think about how and when I’ll return. I’ll be staying in touch with all things on fire safety and there are still a few work social opportunities that I’ve got to look forward to while I’m off.

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