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Bud Nelson, Fire Safety Engineering Innovator, Dead at 82

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Harold E. “Bud” Nelson, known to many as “the most influential fire protection engineer of the 20th century” and the father of the emerging discipline, died on July 21 in Fairfax, Va., from complications after a fall, according to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). He was 82 and lived in Bethesda, Md.

Fire protection engineering is considered a unique subset of construction, but its high-profile industry status today may stem from the pioneering 60-year career of Nelson, who developed many innovations in fire protection design, modeling and systems ap-proaches that have improved building safety, particularly in high-rise structures.

 Nelson began and ended his career analyzing the effects of spectacular building fires. As a young government engineer in 1959, he probed a basement fire in the Pentagon that burned 4,000 sq ft of the giant office building and caused $30 million in damages. Nelson's analysis led to a new industry-wide fire protection standard for IT equipment. In 2002, at age 72, Nelson was tapped by two federal agencies to investigate fire-related factors in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers after the 9/11 attack. His analytical prowess was in demand—although not always appreciated, as when he was critical of a federal guide on design practices (ENR 3/14 2005, p. 21).

Nelson advocated design based on how a fire, a building and its occupants would interact, says an SFPE spokesman. He was an early developer of computer-based fire simulation tools that used algebra to predict fire effects, the spokesman adds. His FPE TOOL is “the most widely used fire modeling program ever developed,” according to Fire Chief magazine.


Following a career with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other agencies, Nelson joined Hughes Associates, a Baltimore consultant. He was a past president and fellow of SFPE, among numerous other industry honors. Nelson also was the first recipient of SFPE's top annual service award, which was named for him.

Says Frederick W. Mowrer, director of the Fire Protection Engineering Program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo: “He was always a passionate advocate for the profession, and he left a unique and indelible mark on it.”



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