How to burn things and influence fire safety

Dan Madrzykowski, fire protection engineer, NIST

Michael O'Connell | April 17, 2015 5:10 pm

Dan Madrzykowski has spent most of his 28 years in federal service burning down buildings.

A fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Madrzykowski burns things so he can test firefighting practices and develope new ways of protecting property and saving people’s lives.

He works with local jurisdictions to find buildings about to be demolished and sets fire to them.

“We burn a building, change one variable and do it again,” Madrzykowski said.


Willie May, NIST’s associate director for laboratory programs, summed up Madrzykowski’s efforts this way: “Dan has been able to use science to show that the traditional practices don’t always provide the best outcomes and, in some cases, they’re putting firefighters in harm’s way.”

Daniel Madrzykowski, fire protection engineer, NIST
For his work, the Partnership for Public Service named Madrzykowski a finalist for a 2013 Service to America Medal in the Citizen Services category. This award honors a public servant who has made a significant contribution in the field of citizen services, such as economic development, housing, labor, health care and transportation.

Madrzykowski was recently interviewed on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. He also answered the following questions about himself and his career in the federal government.

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Lead by example, be honest, take care of the team

What’s the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
It was actually more of a question, “Why isn’t NIST doing things for the fire fighters like they used to?”

It was during a conversation in 1996 that I was having with John Hogland, former director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. It began my research into why NIST stopped conducting research for the fire service in the early 1970s and what the fire service research needs were. With my colleagues at NIST and the U.S. Fire Administration, we restarted the fire fighter research program at NIST.

Mr. Hogland also gave me some words of wisdom. Over the course of his career he has accomplished many things. I asked him how he did it. He said, “The three P’s — Patience, persistence and pile driver.”

Who is your biggest role model and why?
I have many positive role models both at NIST and leaders in the fire service. I have two that were the biggest influences on my professional life, Dr. John Bryan and Harold “Bud” Nelson.

John Bryan founded the Fire Protection Engineering Program at the University of Maryland in 1956 and served as chair of the department through 1993. He is a person that led a life of service — to his students, to the fire protection industry and to the fire service. He is a great teacher, researcher and author. He is a very humble and soft spoken person that people are drawn to — they want to hear what he has to say and he wants to share as much information as possible. He always cared about his customer — the students.

I met Bud Nelson when we were working together at NIST. He always had a strong desire to learn. In fact, although he was about 30 years older than most of the class, he took a course on “new topic,” fire dynamics in the late 1980s at the University of Maryland. I was fortunate enough to be working at NIST as a new engineer and taking that class at night with him. Prior to working at NIST, he worked for the Navy and then for General Services Administration as the Director of Accident and Fire Prevention. He retired with more than 34 years of government service. He taught me the value of reaching out and collaborating with organizations and individuals outside of NIST as a means to move information and ideas forward. To leverage all available resources.

What’s the last thing you read and what’s next on your reading list?
“Line of Duty Death Reduction: Stories, Science, Statistics, and Solutions” by Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy.

Next read: “Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” by Randy Olson

What’s your favorite bureaucratic phrase?
Administrative Burden, quite the euphemism.

The Citizen Services Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a gallery of all the Sammies nominees here.