Navigating Through The NFPA Proposal Gauntlet

(Part Three of Three)

For the past two months, I have been discussing why National Fire Protection Association proposals and comments are rejected. The objections range from “nobody is having a problem,” to “it will put the volunteers out of business,” and all points between – technical and otherwise.

NFPA technical committees review proposals, accept public comments, deliberate and then make rulings on whether they should become standards, or remand them for further study or flat out reject them.

One of the common reasons proposals are rejected revolves around the belief that the issue can be solved by training.

Someone might say “it’s a training issue.” They might believe that good driver training would eliminate the safety features prescribed in NFPA 1901.

They might say better safety training would eliminate NFPA 1500.

You get the idea…

It’s very easy for an NFPA committee to dismiss an idea because they consider it a training issue. The best departments have training as one of the core values.

They train, train, and then train some more. In actuality, we have more stuff to train for than we have time to train. Most of us are in emergency response departments that occasionally fight fires. And our non-emergency public service requests are increasing.

If an NFPA standard can eliminate or reduce the training time to accomplish a task, why not?

The pump panel is a good example. The NFPA 1901 technical committee has requirements to make pump panels a little less complicated. A well-organized pump panel with color coding and logical groupings of valve controls and flow indicators is much easier for the training officer as well as the pump operator.

Another example is personnel accountability. The fire service has been struggling with accountability systems for over 10 years. All of the current systems require lots of training and, if not used on regular basis, become ineffective.

Fire Ground Electronics

This is yet another example of a training aspect of our business that did not exist a few years ago. The NFPA has a technical committee assigned to working with electronics on the fire ground. Part of its scope is to establish minimum requirements for an accountability and firefighter locator system.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a firefighter locator system that is automatic and inherent to some element of the protective ensemble? It appears that technology is currently available, but it needs to be packaged and affordable for the fire service.

More importantly it needs to be part of a system based on standardized equipment to improve “interoperability.”  Did I say interoperability? That’s the big buzzword. The question is, how can you have interoperability without standards?

NFPA technical committees often reject proposals on the grounds that they believe the issue is a management problem. The poster child for this is seatbelt usage. Yes, failure to use seat and shoulder restraints is a management issue.

Particularly confusing to apparatus manufacturers is why fire chiefs, with their para-military organizational structure, cannot get their firefighters to simply buckle up.

Human Behavior Problems

Other than the cultural reasons, I can’t explain it either, but I do know the fire chief is rarely aboard when a fire truck is making an emergency response. It is a human behavior problem and those are not easy to fix.

We cannot forget that technology enables human behavior. Take integrated PASS devices as an example. With the emergence of PASS devices in the late 1980s, there was a huge issue with firefighters failing to turn them on.

Part of the failure was because of false activations, part was due to forgetfulness and part was because of poor supervision/management. However, with PASS now largely being integrated into SCBA, technology has allowed these devices to be used as they are intended.

The NFPA 1901 committee is working on technology to enable the use of seatbelts. There is a proposal to install seatbelt warning devices in fire apparatus just as they are in automobiles. In addition, there is a proposal to tie seatbelt usage into an event data recorder (black box). Since the fire chief cannot be aboard every response the event data recorder can provide the chief with valuable information.

Sometimes, proposals get kicked because they’re perceived as “safety zealot” ideas. That’s  particularly hurtful. I’m not aware of zealots, in the sense of the dictionary definition, who are involved in the NFPA process. There are, however, safety professionals directly involved.

Here’s a disturbing revelation. Based on anecdotal evidence, it appears that no more than 1 percent of all firefighter fatalities occur when there are savable lives at stake. Firefighters aren’t finding new ways to die on the job – just read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty investigative reports. There are common measures cited in all of them to prevent future occurrences.

More than 20 years ago, a few enlightened fire service leaders realized that if we did not get a handle on firefighter safety, then the courts would do it for us. Hence, NFPA 1500 emerged and it has stemmed the number of fatalities and injuries, but the desired goal has not been reached.

Today, we have the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) helping to advance the cause of firefighter safety. Their 16 firefighter life safety initiatives are complementary to NFPA standards. The initiatives are well intended and were created by a cross section of the fire service membership who have an interest in firefighter safety.

The NFPA technical committees need to enable the NFFF’s 16 firefighter life safety initiatives.

Knowing what you’re up against when submitting proposals and overcoming common rejection reasons should help you usher your public proposal through the NFPA gauntlet toward the goal of acceptance.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has nearly 30 years in the fire service, is Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department’s health and safety officer. He is a member of the NFPA’s technical committees on fire apparatus, serving as the chairperson of the group’s safety task force, and a member of the structural fire fighting protective clothing and equipment NFPA correlating committee.

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