Tony Schoenecker, Fire Protection at Burns & McDonnellTony Schoenecker began his career as a mechanical engineer, but recognized his true calling when sprinkler system design became a part of his workload. He went back for a master’s degree in fire protection engineering and never looked back. Tony has played a major role in building Burns & McDonnell’s fire protection engineering team, developing a national center of excellence based out of the Minneapolis office.

Fire protection engineers work alongside code officials and firefighters to help keep people and property safe. His team focuses on the technical approach to increase the building’s safety at the best value for the client. For a wide range of building types, they consider everything from corridor width and egress to smoke exhaust, fire alarms and sprinklers.

Tony is also a Renaissance man — albeit with some admittedly idiosyncratic hobbies. He keeps chickens and ducks, plays broomball (on the Burns & McDonnell-sponsored team, no less) and knows enough about raw food to make sushi using walnuts.

What do you work on each day?
In fire protection, I get to be a jack of all trades — it’s always something different. When I was a mechanical engineer, I did a lot of ductwork and piping. However, over the years, I’ve found fire transcends most disciplines. Fire alarms involve electrical systems. When I’m working on fire doors and egress, I’m thinking from an architect’s perspective. I put on my mechanical engineering hat when reviewing smoke exhaust and hydraulic systems. It’s an integrated approach.

How does Burns & McDonnell handle fire protection differently?
In some places, the mechanical engineer designs the sprinklers, the electrical engineer designs the alarms — and they never really talk. We’re all communicating from the beginning. It’s a holistic approach to the design of fire protection that increases safety, but efficient to the point we often return money to our clients’ budgets. I once flew halfway around the world to explain how reclassifying a project would change the fireproofing requirements. This alternative approach to the design saved the project hundreds of thousands of dollars. It feels great to get the best bang for the buck without compromising the safety of people and property.

What does your average day look like?
As a department manager, I’m a relief hitter. We’re divided into sectors — facilities, refineries, energy plants and more. Our team is often called upon to troubleshoot situations where the code isn’t clear or there is no code. One client with a cookie dough mixer, for example, wanted to switch to using alcohol as the means to inject flavorant. Well, alcohol is flammable, so what are the fire protection implications? Or we’ll design the world’s first double-decker fueling pier. My role is whatever it needs to be. I work on projects, travel for meetings and do a whole lot of mentoring. There really is no average day.

What’s a common misconception in your industry?
People are often concerned they’ll be pigeonholed in our world, that they’ll only be able to work on a single type of project or system. But it’s important to be well-rounded because all fire protection systems work together. We make sure our up-and-coming engineers touch every element — life safety, fire alarms, smoke control, sprinklers, building codes — and we maintain that knowledge. Having a team of fire protection walking encyclopedias is a huge asset to Burns & McDonnell. We maintain a fire support email address where anyone in the company can ask a question, and we can quickly provide an answer where it might have otherwise taken hours of research.

How old were you when you discovered your path?
When I was younger, I put everything into the campfire I possibly could. I was fascinated by the science of it, the chemical reaction. The fire dynamic classes were always my favorite. In fact, I sat and passed the PE exam for fire protection before I took any of my master’s degree classes. The better you understand the concepts of fire — what burns and how — the better you can understand why codes are written a certain way. It’s much better to understand why the code is there than to simply memorize it. You should know fire to protect against fire.

What has been your defining/transforming moment on your job so far?
It’s not for me personally; it’s been for our group and the reputation we’ve developed. I’ll hear PMs I don’t even know say, “You really need to contact the Minneapolis fire group. They’ll help ya out.” That’s when you know your reputation is strong. It takes a long time to build something like that. We protect it. And we’re starting to win more and more projects because of our powerhouse fire protection engineers.

If you had one piece of advice for someone entering your field, what would it be?
We don’t just hire anyone. We only hire great candidates and have high expectations of them. You’ll be expected to perform to the level of everyone around you, and they are all A players. You’ll have responsibility and ownership. You will be challenged and occasionally frustrated. If you thrive under those expectations, you’ll love it here. And you’ll become an A player, too.

What would your fellow employee-owners be surprised to learn about you?
I love adventure and my wife is all about healthful living. And we’re both always up for trying new things. We’ve been on vacations where we’re in harnesses ziplining, hang gliding or on the world’s largest swing. We’ve been to Ecuador on a raw food retreat. These days, we’re on the path where if we are going to eat it, we are going to raise it or grow it. We have a small hobby farm with chickens, Guinea hens, turkeys and ducks. We’ve even considered getting a llama. My current goal is riding down the street on my unicycle walking a llama. I’m not going to lie — my bucket list is pretty interesting.

How do you create amazing?
I hire people smarter than me and get the heck out of their way. We’re always listening, reacting and responding with integrity. The people here have it down — they’re what makes this place special.

Thinking about a career in fire protection engineering? Check out our openings and apply today!

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