Dr. John L. Bryan is considered a pioneer and his countless contributions to the fire service and fire protection engineering are well known throughout the United States and around the world.
John was born November 15, 1926, in Washington D.C. to parents George and Buena Bryan. He spent his early days on his family farm and in the Boy Scouts. John would later earn the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout, an award that would follow him through the rest of his life and career. At an early age of 11, he showed an interest in the fire service and started the Rinky Dink Fire Department in his neighborhood to extinguish brush fires started by hot coals falling from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad coal-burning steam engines.
As he got older, John pursued his interest in the fire service by joining Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. He would go on to hold both paid and volunteer positions. John would volunteer to sit watch over the night at the watch desk and would be seen reading magazines and journals from the NFPA. During his time at the watch desk, he discovered the two-year Firemanship Training Program at the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College. Eventually, this program evolved into the current Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Department, a part of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology at Oklahoma State University. John was interested in studying the more technical aspects of the fire service. Following his graduation at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, he enrolled in the program at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
While a student in Oklahoma, John lived in the campus fire station serving with the City of Stillwater Fire Department, a practice that many of his future students would have an opportunity to do, through live-in programs in Prince George’s County, Maryland. After completing the two-year Firemanship Training Program, John continued his education by earning a bachelors degree in 1953 and then a masters degree in 1954 in Trade and Industrial Education from Oklahoma A&M. While a student, he had an internship opportunity with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and worked as an insurance inspector for the Grain Dealer’s Mutual Insurance Company.
At the same time that John was finishing his degrees in Oklahoma, much work was going on in his home state of Maryland to create a college-level fire protection program under the Training Committee of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association. In 1954, the University of Maryland, Fire Service Extension, recruited him to develop a course of study on Fire Protection Engineering. In August of 1955, John presented a four-year curriculum to Wilson Homer “Bull” Elkin, University President and the S.S. Steinberg, Dean of Engineering. The curriculum of this program was published in the June 1956 issue of Fire Engineering magazine. Ultimately what led to the creation of the program was several tragic fires that occurred in Maryland. The first was on February 16, 1955, the Tru-Fit Clothing Company fire with the loss of six firefighters and when twenty people were hospitalized. On January 29, 1956, a second fire broke out at the Arundel Park Hall in Northern Arundel County, Maryland. During this fire, eleven lives were lost and hundreds more were injured. The following day, Sunday, January 30, 1956, John met with then president of the Maryland State Fireman’s Association and future Maryland Governor, J. Millard Tawes, to finalize a plan for funding the program. The Maryland State Legislature approved funds in the Spring of 1956. The University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering was officially established on July 1, 1956.
John found a new interest as he began setting the department’s vision regarding the dynamics of human behavior in a fire. He started with a report on one of the fires that led to the creation of his department. He ultimately authored A Study of Survivors Report on the Panic in the Fire at the Arundel Park Hall in Brooklyn, Maryland, on January 29, 1956. John’s study is one of the earliest investigations of panic behavior in fires. This ground-breaking report on such a newly established field of research was published by the University of Maryland and helped establish a world-renowned department. He continued with the examination and analysis of the dynamics of human behavior in the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel, Clark County, Nevada, November 21, 1980.
For the first four years of the department, John served as the only faculty member. Through hard work and dedication, the first Bachelor’s Degree was awarded in January of 1962. At the same time that he was building the program up, John returned to school and, in 1965, became Dr. John L. Bryan, having earned his Doctorate of Education from American University. More success came to the department in 1990 when the University awarded the first Masters of Science and Masters of Engineering degrees in Fire Protection Engineering. Until his retirement in 1993, he served as the founding Professor and Chairman of the Department. Additionally, he remained active in the department well into his 80’s.
Much success to the program came from the leadership style of Dr. Bryan. To his students, Dr. Bryan was more than a teacher; he was a caring “Professor” and early on became affectionately known as “Prof” to all of his students. Prof helped many students discover hidden skills and talents that led to careers in engineering. Additionally, he created live-in program opportunities for students with a local volunteer fire department in exchange for fire suppression services, the students would live for free while attending school. (Milke)
Dr. Bryan was primarily known for his sharp memory. A previous student of Dr. Bryan’s, Tom Gardner, shared that he visited the campus a year later after touring the department when he asked Dr. Bryan’s secretary if he could have an appointment with the professor. Dr. Bryan’s secretary said that he could walk right into Dr. Bryan’s office. Tom could not even finish re-introducing himself before Dr. Bryan said “Hi Tom”, this story shared by Tom Gardner P.E., FSPFE, Project and Engineer Development Manager of Harrington Group in Atlanta. Tom mentions that this was an excellent example of who Dr. Bryan was as a Professor.
Dr. Bryan wanted to see success in every student. This success can be viewed in an interview with Dr. Bryan many years later told by the National Fire Heritage Center’s Immediate Past President, Fire Chief (Ret.) Ronny J. Coleman, “John points with pride that he had 670 fire protection engineering graduates who had gone through his program. It is hard to visualize a part of the United States that has not been affected by his students”. Dr. Bryan and his sharp memory was evident while at fire conferences, he could name every person in the room and the company for which they worked. Additionally, in his interview, Chief Coleman quoted Dr. Bryan as saying, “When I asked Dr. Bryan what his most successful achievement was in his lifetime, he replied simply – “my graduates!”
Dr. Bryan reminded students to show pride in their education by wearing buttons with the department’s logo. Dr. Bryan would challenge his students by demanding money to purchase a new button if their button could not be displayed fast enough, with the proceeds going to the department to support the program. Another favorite item that Dr. Bryan was famously known for was his snowmen drawing on student’s assignments. If he believed you were bluffing him, a snowman symbol would be placed on your paper. The snowman symbolized the failure of your attempt to trick him.
Outside of academia, Prof was very active with two major professional organizations within the fire protection field, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SPFE), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Over the years, Dr. Bryan sat on many committees as a member and chair with a long and distinguished service legacy.
Some of these positions included:
Life Safety Code-Means of Egress Committee Member 1969 – 2009, Member Emeritus Status
Life Safety Code-Correlating Committee 1975 – 2009, Member Emeritus Status
Board of Directors Member 1972-1975, Second Vice-Chairman 1975-1976, First Vice Chairman 1976-1978, Chairman 1978-1980, Past Chairman 1980-1984
Standards Council Member 1980 -1991, Chair 1985-1991
Environmental Technical Advisory Committee 1991-1997
Fire Safety Educational Memorial Fund Chair 1996 – 2010
Board of Directors Nominating Committee 2002 – 2004
Standards Council Member from 1980-1991, Chair 1985-1991
Dr. Bryan is the only person to Chair both the NFPA Board of Directors and the NFPA Standards Council. Most recently, in 2008, the NFPA dedicated the 20th Edition of the Fire Protection Handbook to Dr. John L. Bryan, “In recognition of his extraordinary service as founder and professor of the fire protection engineering program at the University of Maryland, as chairman of the NFPA Board of Directors, as chairman of the NFPA Standards Council and as a leader and mentor.” (Milke)
Throughout his career, Dr. Bryan wrote many books and articles. These included but is not limited to:
“Fire Suppression and Detection Systems” (1974)
“Automatic Sprinkler & Standpipe Systems” (1976)
As well as countless articles for many different publications such as Fire Engineering, NFPA Journal, and many more.
Additionally, many awards were earned by Dr. Bryan, including:
NFPA Paul C. Lamb Award
NFPA The Standards Medal
SFPE Fire Protection Person of the Year Award (1977)
SFPE Arthur B. Guise Medal (1998)
SFPE President’s Award (2013)
SFPE John L. Bryan Mentor Award created in his honor (2007)
American Fire Sprinkler Association Parmalee Award (1991)
Faculty and Staff Outstanding Commitment Award (2001)
Underwriters Laboratories Board of Trustees (1977-2000)
Member, Maryland State Firemen’s Association Hall of Fame
Fellow, Society of Fire Protection Engineers (1989)
Dr. James A. Milke, Professor and Chair of the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, whom was also a student of Dr. Bryan, stated, “While Dr. Bryan will be sadly missed by his many friends, students, and colleagues, it is most important to remember he led an amazing full life dedicated to serving his fellow man through the fire service and fire protection engineering. His achievements and contributions are monumental to the field and continue to advance fire safety today and into the future”
This article was a collaboration with Elliot M. Paisner II, Daniel Vu, Dr. James A. Milke, P.E., Tom Gardner P.E., FSPFE and Director/PIO Christopher Baker, GIFireE.