As the head of one of the world’s recognized standards developing organizations (SDOs), imagine my pure delight in reading an opinion piece in this Sunday’s New York Times entitled The Joy of Standards – Life is a lot easier when you can plug in to any socket. The work, written by Dr. Andrew Russell, the dean of arts and sciences at the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, and Dr. Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, espouses the benefits of private, non-government organizations facilitating the development of standards that impact everything around us. The authors use modern examples of things impacted by standards such as electrical plugs fitting into any socket, smartphone connectivity to Bluetooth and the dimensions of a concrete block. Although there are many others they could have pointed to, I also liked their great example from an Arizona State University study that concluded a standard laptop incorporates more than 250 standards.
SDOs provide hundreds of technical, industry and scientific standards that are useful not only to the public each year but also to federal, state and local government, supporting market standardization and business innovation, promoting health, safety and the environment, and saving time and money for governments at all levels. This consensus-based approach ensures that all stakeholders - including (depending on the subject) users, manufacturers, insurance providers, consumers, government regulatory agencies, enforcers, independent experts and academics - can participate and that no special interest can predominate.
To most of the public or policymakers, this work is often not known, not fully appreciated or taken for granted. The reality is SDOs serve the public through the creation of standards that promote reliability, interoperability and quality, bringing economic and other societal benefits and astronomical savings to government.
The savings comes from the fact independent SDOs hold copyright in their standards, and are able to fund their standards development activities from revenue generated from the sale of their standards publications. This allows SDOs to keep the barriers to participation low and to retain their independence and freedom from potential influence by any industry or group. For more than a century, this model has been highly successful and is probably one of the oldest public private partnership. Many SDOs including NFPA also make their standards available for free viewing on their websites.
While we who work in standards developing know the true value of this process, it was great to see it get some broader visibility. I may even hang this quote from the piece on my wall as a daily reminder of the importance of the work we do, “In an age of breathless enthusiasm for the new and 'disruptive,' it’s worth remembering the mundane agreements embodied in the things around us. It’s very ordinariness and settledness of standards that enable us to survive, and to move ahead.”
Our hearts are heavy as details emerge from Parkland, Florida about yet another active shooting incident in our country. While the refrain, “when will it end?” has been uttered by politicians, pundits, and the public since a 19-old pulled the fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida school and killed 17 members of an unsuspecting community, NFPA has been focused on another question, “how can we help?”
NFPA can’t prevent these tragedies, but we do think there is more to be done in how they are responded to. NFPA has sped up its typical standards development process to develop the world’s first standard to help communities prepare, respond and rebound from hostile events. NFPA 3000™ Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events, slated to be available as early as this April, is being developed by a technical committee comprised of representatives from FEMA, DHS, the FBI, the fire service, law enforcement, emergency medicine, hospitals, facilities, the government, and public education.
While no standard or code in the world can prevent horrific attacks from occurring in the future, NFPA 3000™ is intended to make communities better-equipped to deal with such tragedies by providing guidelines for cooperative planning, integrated response, and whole community recovery. The document will hold policymakers and authorities accountable for cross-collaboration, enforcement, and public outreach; while emphasizing Run. Hide. Fight. and Stop the Bleed - key messages to minimize loss at the hands of perpetrators.
FBI statistics tell the story of the disproportionate number of active shooter and hostile events in the United States; and underscore the need for guidance for communities. NFPA 3000™ and efforts to make Active Shooter Hostile Event Response (ASHER™) programs mandatory will go a long way in helping cities, towns and jurisdictions establish safe infrastructures. But it’s going to take buy-in, practice, and coordination from policymakers, first responders, skilled professionals, code enforcers, and the general public. Without such an ecosystem, we will not only fail our citizens, but all those that have lost their lives in these tragedies.
The deadline to submit public input on NFPA 3000, Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events is this Friday, February 23 at 5:00p.m. (EST).
Last week NFPA introduced EFFECT™ (the Exterior Facade Fire Evaluation Comparison Tool) to help building owners and managers assess risk in their properties, and stem the tide of fires in high-rise structures with combustible cladding. Now, coming on the heels of that release, we see yet another harrowing example of a building with combustible exterior wall panels going up in flames in Malaysia.
At NFPA, we spend a lot of time peeling away layers so that we can better understand fires and the related hazards that often lead to loss of people and property. After 120 years, we know that when it comes to big fire events, it’s never just one thing that goes wrong. It’s often more than one factor so you have to look at fire and life safety more holistically – and you need a variety of stakeholders supporting and advocating for a solid safety infrastructure. We call this the fire protection and prevention ecosystem.
Epic blazes running up the sides of skyscrapers in cities from Dubai, to Shanghai, to Atlantic City, to Melbourne, were vivid examples of breakdowns in this ecosystem where the proper use and application of referenced codes were lacking. Then the world watched in horror as a similar fire ripped through the Grenfell Towers in West London, killing 71 last June.
In response to all of these, NFPA created a risk-based tool to help building owners, facility managers and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) evaluate their inventory of potential at-risk buildings from the convenience of their desktop.
Assessing risk is not easy work, but it is necessary. EFFECT™ helps time-crunched property managers and enforcers proactively assess the entire building – taking into account the facade, the building itself, fire protection systems and features, egress design, communications and notification systems, and any exterior ignition sources.
When the investigative commission in London releases their findings on Grenfell, the topic of fire safety will once again be thrust into the spotlight in a big way – and rightly so. In the meantime, governments have mandated risk assessment of buildings; communities have created cladding tasks groups; and building owners and registered design professionals are being held more accountable for the safety of exterior wall systems.
This is a great start, but we need more proactive measures to promote the full fire protection and prevention ecosystem. This means maintaining an effective policy and regulatory environment supporting fire and life safety; using the latest codes and standards; choosing safety over cost-cutting; applying the referenced standards within a code; promoting the development of skilled professionals who can apply the code; supporting effective code enforcement; educating the public and policymakers about the dangers posed by fire and other hazards; and providing effective response capabilities.
Without adherence to every piece of the system, we are destined to stall or reverse the reductions in fire loss that we have achieved by these very practices.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal featured an in-depth article on the Grenfell Tower fire and the exterior wall panels that escalated the fire’s devastating spread. According to the article, “… the more recent use of combustible-core panels to cover multistory buildings has created a hidden danger to legions of workers, students, hospital patients and hotel guests inside the structures. A loosening of the model U.S. building code could make matters worse.”
The article notes that the ICC building code was relaxed in 2009 to allow broader use of a particular type of exterior wall covering on high-rise structures. Unfortunately, this code change is no outlier. It reflects a broader undercurrent toward more relaxed codes and standards, and it’s a trend that can jeopardize public safety.
Technical committees that we have working on the development of codes and standards are a balanced cross-section of interests all driving towards the same goal – improved safety for people and property. We encourage committees to be thorough in their evaluations of proposed changes and to be sure they are asking the right questions so that they have the information to make the best decision possible. Our committees take this responsibility seriously and we take our process seriously to ensure that everyone that has an interest has had an opportunity to have their voice heard.
In addition to proposed modifications that allow less vigorous codes and standards, we’ve increasingly witnessed states and jurisdictions removing important safety related provisions of codes because they don’t understand the extensive process that was used to arrive at the requirement. In effect, we have seen local amendment processes change from their original intent of ensuring appropriate administration of the requirements into a process where the main focus is on reducing the minimum safety requirements due to cost or outside influence. In fact, in the past, unlike today, jurisdictions that revised technical requirements did so almost exclusively to improve, not reduce, the level of safety included in their codes.
While I realize an argument for these actions around codes and standards is often cost, the reality is codes developed through the consensus process already represent the minimum level of safety. Weakening codes not only means jurisdictions miss out on the best knowledge available from research, collective wisdom and past learnings, but they compromise public safety.
All of us who diligently work each day to make the world safer from fire and other hazards must denounce these dangerous trends and vigorously support a full system of fire safety. This eco-system includes an effective policy and regulatory environment, use of latest versions of codes and referenced codes, a robust enforcement system, promoting the development of a skilled professionals to apply the codes, and educating the public and policymakers on the risks posed by fire and other hazards. The lives of those we help save in abiding by these principals is unarguably worth the effort.
The Grenfell Tower fire in London has been a horrific fire tragedy. With a loss of 79 lives thus far, it is one of the most tragic fires to occur in the UK in recent decades. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims as well to the first responders involved in the very difficult recovery operations. We have reached out to the UK to offer NFPA’s support and assistance in any way needed.
News stories have talked about the flammability of exterior cladding, the lack of fire sprinklers and the notion of “shelter in place” amongst other subjects. On its own, it is a horrendous tragedy. In combination with other recent events, some disturbing trends emerge which could set fire safety back for decades.
For example, in less than one year we saw 36 people perish in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, a former warehouse being used as living and entertainment space. The fire raised questions about appropriate permitting for its use, code enforcement, lack of fire alarms and the role of occupants in understanding the impact of their surroundings on their own personal safety. We saw a fire at a packaging factory in Bangladesh that killed 23 in a building with woefully inadequate fire protection. We saw a wildfire in Tennessee burn over 17,000 acres of land and kill 14 people, prompting questions about pre-planning, building in the urban interface to withstand wildfire, fire service ability to respond to an event of this magnitude and public awareness around this growing threat. Another raging wildfire in Portugal claimed the lives of 62 people, many burned in their cars as they attempted to flee, raising similar questions about planning and preparedness. We saw a six-year-old girl die in Connecticut when a fire ripped through the recently constructed house that, if it had been built to meet the national codes, would have had a home fire sprinkler and likely a much different outcome.
Each of these incidents is an individual tragedy. Taken together, they depict a larger global problem warranting action. Looked at in their entirety, they are a collective example of how, either intentionally or accidentally, the fire prevention and protection system has been broken. A system that the public believes exists and counts on for their safety. A system that, through complacency, bad policy and placing economics of construction over safety, has let the public down.
Where have we gone astray? In each of these scenarios as well as many more not mentioned we can point to one or more factors:
• the use of outdated codes and standards
• acceptance of reduced safety requirements to save money
• ignoring referenced standards within a code
• lack of education around the application of the codes and standards
• reduced enforcement
• a public unaware of the dangers of fire
When government and other entities don’t adopt or designers don’t use the latest versions of codes and standards, they lose the benefit of the latest technology, research and collective wisdom related to fire, electrical and life safety.
When policy makers decide to remove life safety and property protection provisions from codes, they have substituted politics for technical requirements that were determined after extensive input from across the spectrum of knowledgeable people.
When users fail to review and follow standards that are referenced in the codes, they aren’t ensuring the right practices and products are used in the right situations, increasing vulnerability to disaster.
When the professionals involved in design, installation, enforcement and maintenance have not kept up to date on the latest requirements they can end up applying products improperly leading to catastrophic results.
When jurisdictions, under fiscal pressures or lack of understanding of the importance, reduce enforcement efforts, they place their communities at risk as buildings deteriorate, change ownership or type of use.
And when the public takes safety for granted and is uneducated about fire risks, their improper or uneducated actions can place them in peril.
The system the public relies on for managing fire safety is broken and a single solution isn’t the answer. It will take a systems approach to fix it. At NFPA, we are focused on looking at the entire system and working with everyone involved to fill the gaps.
We may not be able to prevent every tragedy from occurring, but by recommitting to and promoting a full system of fire prevention, protection and education, we can help save lives and reduce loss. That is the story that should consume the news of the day.
President and CEO
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Hon. Tanya S. Chutkan) late last week issued a ruling that will support federal, state and local governments’ efforts to support public health and safety through the use of voluntary consensus codes and standards. On February 2, the court granted a motion for summary judgment filed by a number of standard development organizations (SDOs), including NFPA, ASTM International and ASHRAE. The court’s ruling permanently enjoins Public.Resource.org from its previous systematic infringement of numerous SDO copyrighted codes and standards. The ruling vindicates the longstanding public-private partnership pursuant to which government entities may, if they choose, incorporate by reference high quality safety codes and standards.
We are very pleased with the court’s thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, which recognizes the importance of a time-tested process that serves governments and individuals well and is vital to public health and safety.
The history of not-for-profit SDOs developing voluntary consensus standards goes back more than a century. Governments, businesses, and individuals across the country rely on a wide variety of works, from product specifications and installation methods to safety codes and standards. SDOs, not resource-constrained governmental agencies, underwrite the substantial costs of developing standards.
SDOs pay for the standard development process and invest in new standards with the money earned selling and licensing their copyrighted works. This model allows SDOs to remain independent of special interests and to develop up-to-date, high-quality standards. It also allows the U.S. government – and governments at all levels – the freedom to decide whether to incorporate these standards by reference without a drain on their limited resources.
NFPA has provided free access to all of its codes and standards for more than a decade. Many other SDOs also provide free online access to many standards as part of an overall commitment to safety.
The standards development process is an excellent example of a successful public-private partnership that benefits business, government and individual citizens. More information about the importance of codes and standards and how to get involved can be found on NFPA’s website.
First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out from NFPA to the families, communities and first responders who are impacted by the number of recent fire tragedies filling the headlines. For those of us who devote our careers to making the world safer from fire, these stories shake us to our core.
As I read of the horrendous fire in Oakland this weekend where at least 36 people lost their lives, and then saw coverage of a 10 alarm fire outside Boston that left more than 100 homeless; a fire in a hotel in Pakistan that killed 11; and continuing coverage of the Tennessee wildfires where the death toll has reached 14, I couldn’t help but think about what they all had in common. As different as the scenarios are, they are a painful reminder that we have not solved the fire problem and we must remain ever vigilant on the things that have helped us dramatically reduce the amount of loss in recent decades.
Codes and standards, a robust enforcement system and public education have all combined to bring the number of deaths, injuries and dollar loss down. But with that success has come a level of complacency that we see in so many of today’s scenarios. No one thinks it’s an issue until it’s an issue. I’m sure for folks in Oakland, fire safety was not top of mind when they attended an event there or folks in Tennessee may not have seen wildfire as a major issue to the extent many people in California do.
These fires remind us that the threats and challenges facing the public and first responders continue to change. In Oakland, the changing occupancy of that building may have only been known to those who lived or worked there, not to the fire service or other officials. This is likely a scenario happening in other places around the country. The ability to attract large numbers of people to an unknown venue is easy through newer ways of social media. Couple that with the rate of speed things can go from bad to worse when there are blocked or not enough exits and lots of combustibles.
They remind us that our work is not done and we should make every effort to see the learnings from all of them are used in our codes and standards, enforcement and public education work just as we have throughout history. This is how we can ensure that we continue to reduce loss and avoid complacency.
More information on these incidents and NFPA resources can be found under breaking news at nfpa.org.
Recently, NFPA hosted the Urban Fire Forum, the annual gathering of 25 fire and emergency service leaders who are members of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs, a membership section of the NFPA and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The Forum endorsed a position statement on Fire and Smoke as a Weapon. This six page document contains background on why those who would harm citizens around the globe consider fire and smoke as weapons. More importantly, drawing on the collective experience of the Metro Chiefs and guidance from the US Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation, provides detailed information on planning, training, and operational needs when responding to such an event.
September 11, 2001, catapulted NFPA into an era where we had to consider the intentional use of fire as a weapon to create harm and attack the structural integrity of building. We saw how this event overwhelmed the ability of any Code or Standard to protect occupants and responders from harm.
Today we see a world where some have gathered to harm others utilizing a horrific arsenal of tools, including fire. Through social media and slick magazines, their followers are instructed how to attack innocents and inflict great harm. Protecting America and those nations targeted will require more than Codes and Standards. As highlighted in Fire and Smoke as A Weapon, it will require preplanning, training, and operational deployment commensurate with the risk.
To assist Americas responders in their efforts to protect our Homeland from these threats, NFPA has created a web page with the Urban Fire Forum position paper and other resources. The Position Paper is a must read for all leaders of emergency response organizations. See the additional resources, including a DHS paper on terrorist interest in using fire as a weapon as well as the FDNY interagency response protocol, at www.nfpa.org/urbanfireforum.
Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote an opinion piece, which appeared in Saturday’s New York Times where he chronicled a number of horrific manufacturing accidents in recent years that had significant fatalities and worker injuries. All were attributed to combustible dust. The most recent example was an explosion in a metal products factory in China this month that claimed the lives of 75 people and injured 185. He voiced his frustration about a lack of action to prevent these tragedies.
I share his frustration for two reasons. First, while combustible dust is a normal by-product of the manufacturing process for a variety of items, if it is effectively managed it will reduce deaths and injuries should a fire or explosion occur. Second, NFPA codes and standards provide the means to manage combustible dust but are not being adopted and/or enforced to the extent they should be.
NFPA has published fire protection standards for various solids processing industries that generate combustible dusts, for over 70 years. The similar fundamental approach exists within our standards today to that first established in the 1920's - limit the generation and release of the combustible dust (fuel side of fire triangle), identify and control ignition sources, and if an explosion still occurs, limit its spread by construction, isolation, housekeeping and explosion prevention methods (like suppression).
Over the years investigations by CSB concluded that if existing NFPA standards had been followed incidents would have not occurred or certainly results mitigated. The issue was further highlighted in a CSB comprehensive dust study in 2006 showing the problem was more than an isolated series of events and continued to call on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop federal standards and initiate increased inspections.
OSHA did initiate the National Emphasis Program (NEP), which includes policies and procedures for inspecting workplaces that create or handle combustible dusts. The NEP states that NFPA combustible dust standards should be consulted to obtain evidence of hazard recognition and feasible abatement methods. Unfortunately, the movement to establish the mandatory regulation of combustible dust in all industries has stalled.
NFPA combustible dust standards are included in fire codes; so, in theory, our standards are referenced and adopted; but awareness within segments of the industry lags and overall enforcement is inconsistent. OSHA should initiate the process to adopt NFPA standards as the national standards.
Standards developed through NFPA’s voluntary consensus process provide a practical, cost-effective solution for better fire, life and electric safety. There is a long history of government agencies and jurisdictions on all levels adopting privately developed standards. These standards then must be enforced. It takes the complete package – develop, adopt, enforce - to better protect individuals and property from hazards, including fires and explosions from combustible dusts.