Alan R. Earls
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an international nonprofit organization established more than a century ago with, according to the organization, a focus on improving fire safety and combating other hazards by helping support the development of consensus-based codes and standards as well as through research, training, and education. According to the NFPA, it maintains some 300 codes and standards through the efforts of more than 200 committees encompassing about 6,000 individuals.
However, the breadth and quantity of NFPA’s “products” sometimes obscure how the process works. Sometimes, it is unclear who votes on standards and how they are developed-or even what a consensus standard is. Ken Willett, head of public fire protection at NFPA, acknowledges that “a lot of users of our standards look at the finished documents and question how they ended up looking like that.” Indeed, he says, it is not uncommon for people to read a revised standard and “feel sure” that they see the work or influence of a particular entity, such as a manufacturer or a firefighter’s organization. Or, he notes, “They may feel that the process is somehow disconnected from the users of the standard.”
Before coming to the NFPA, Willett worked in the fire service in the defense department at Westover AFB in Massachusetts. He went from there to the Wilbraham (MA) Fire Department, where he stayed for 26 years, eventually becoming chief. Then he spent six years in the Concord (MA) Fire Department before retiring in 2009.
Willett says he very much wants to dispel misconceptions about NFPA standards. “Having sat in on many technical committees and having had conversations with many committee members, all of whom are volunteers, the overarching observation I would make is that the NFPA standards development process is unique in, among other things, the fact that it is accredited by the American Standards Institute.”
But that’s not all. Although the NFPA is perhaps the best known practitioner, it is not alone in relying on a consensus process, which contrasts with, for example, a government agency deciding on its own about what standards to impose. By contrast, the consensus process engages a wide range of relevant views and works to hammer out the best and most pragmatic standards.
Willett says the NFPA goes to great lengths to ensure openness, transparency, and balance in its work.
The openness is underscored, he notes, by the fact that participants do not have to be dues-paying NFPA members to be part of a technical committee. The NFPA also has a total of nine different member categories, helping to provide a wide breadth of input. Those categories include the following: Manufacturer, User, Installer/Maintainer, Labor, Applied Research/Testing Laboratory, Enforcing Authority, Insurance, Consumer, and Special Expert.
“It is an obvious benefit to everyone that the person sitting on the committee has knowledge of the standard and has applied it,” says Willett. “We do have some people who may not have a lot of direct experience with a given standard, but they usually have an important or useful perspective,” he explains.
Sometimes, admits Willett, users of standards will ask why a manufacturer is on a committee. He says that although manufacturer members represent their companies, their presence on the committee is very valuable because of the expertise they represent. For example, when the committee is focused on standards for fire apparatus or emergency equipment, a new idea may be great, but if it will cost too much to implement, it may not be practical. The representatives from the manufacturing organizations provide a “reality check” regarding what is possible technically and what is feasible at a given cost. “That is a very important part of the process,” says Willett.
The NFPA also aims for balance across each committee. Although the organization welcomes members from all nine categories, “We have a steadfast rule that no one membership category can total more than 30 percent of the committee membership. That way no one group ever has the ability to overinfluence the perspective or to simply carry the vote,” Willett explains.
Each year, the NFPA receives applications from manufacturers to join different committees. However, the association often has to deny those applications because it already has the maximum number of manufacturers allowed on a given committee. Sometimes that happens with specific experts, too-people who may be working as consultants on committees. If requests for that category exceed the available membership slots, they might get turned down.
And, the NFPA actively polices the process. For example, if it becomes aware of a person seated on a committee as, say, a special expert, but discovers the individual is doing work that seems to be supported by a manufacturer, that person will be removed from the committee. “I have seen that happen several times. Sometimes someone has been misclassified and ends up being removed because it would upset the balance,” says Willett.
Willett says the NFPA has always tried to have all the actions of committees available through a three-step process. In the first step, the document is open for public input. The NFPA advertises the fact that a given standard is open for public input. At that point, anyone can look at it and comment, for example, suggesting that fire apparatus should be yellow and that should be the standard color. They can create a public input by going online. They don’t even have to go to a committee meeting. “It is relatively simple and straightforward; and that all becomes part of the committee record and has to be heard, reviewed, and discussed at the first revision meeting,” says Willett.
At that meeting, the committee looks at all the public input, and it can decide to accept or reject or modify. All the input gets put into the first revision report that is posted and made public, and people then have another opportunity to comment. “If you submitted public input, you can look for the first revision to be released and if the committee took no action, you can comment again and say that you think it should do this or that. And, the committee has to review it a second time,” Willett explains.
When the document is ready to be released, interested parties can file an amendment motion. That will bring their proposal to the floor of the NFPA annual meeting and allows all members who are present to “hear your case.” If the members feel it is a compelling argument, they can vote to have that language put in the document. Or, they may support the decision that the committee made.
“We work hard at maintaining that transparency. New software is made available online so people can now sign up for alerts. Each time we post something about a given document, you can find out about it and follow the action of the committee,” says Willett.
Willett says the NFPA sometimes get inquiries from fire departments, individuals, and organizations that have questions about the language in specific standards. They may be dissatisfied. They have a preference for having something adopted that the technical committee opted not to do.
Although there is no guarantee that everyone will be pleased, Willett stresses that the NFPA is neutral as to what the standard should state. What the NFPA is not neutral about is maintaining those three pillars of openness, transparency, and balance. The NFPA, he explains, focuses on providing and maintaining the process. The technical committees make the decisions. “Going back to the yellow fire truck example, the NFPA would not say whether they should be yellow, green, or red. But, we would comment if the process for making a decision had not been followed. The technical liaisons must tell the committees when their actions do not conform to the process,” says Willett.
The standards exist to provide recommended best practices that directly influence firefighter safety. For example, notes Willett, there have been incidents of fire and safety personnel deaths from rollover accidents with tanker vehicles. Through the NFPA’s investigations and those of the United States Fire Administration, it was noted that there were large numbers of vehicles being operated in the tanker role that weren’t designed for fire service use. They lacked baffles and stability controls. So, the standard was revised and, partially with dollars available through Assistance to Firefighters grants and partnering with manufacturers of fire apparatus, those baffles became part of the standard and part of what was manufactured going forward. “It is now to the point where it is rare to see fire service fatalities from tanker rollovers. That is not 100 percent because of the standard, but I would suggest that it was a huge driver in bringing safety to users. That is why NFPA standards exist,” says Willett.
“In achieving that goal for responder safety, we tried to take a complex issue and break it down to a document that can provide guidance,” Willett explains. However, he notes, it is not uncommon for discussions to not make it into a revision. That’s often because there may not be research to back up an idea. Or, it may be that the manufacturing community can’t provide it. “It may be needed but not available at a price that is affordable,” says Willett.
“A great example is our NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services. We found many instances of faceplate failures. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) noticed that lenses were cracking, crazing, and failing. That is the last line of defense for a firefighter-if that fails, the chances of survival are minimal,” says Willett.
When that issue was identified, the NFPA did not yet address testing criteria in its current standards. So, working with NIOSH and others, the NFPA put out safety alerts. At the same time, NIOSH and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were doing research and came up with testing standards that needed another year to be completed. “So, the NFPA extended the document cycle-we went from a five- to a six-year revision so we could put those standards into the document at the earliest opportunity,” he explains. And, at the same time, “The manufacturers were ready to go and the testing was there-so when it came to market, the end users would benefit, saving firefighter lives,” adds Willett.
The System Works
All things considered, says Willett, the NFPA process works remarkably well. “When I entered the fire service in 1974, the state of the art was still ¾ rubber boots and fiberglass helmets-and maybe two sets of breathing apparatus on the truck. And, purchases were made on the basis of cost, not effectiveness,” he notes.
However, starting in the 1970s, the NFPA personal protective equipment standards began to be developed, leading to even more advanced standards of protection. Similarly, he notes, almost every piece of fire apparatus now meets NFPA standards, as well as training. “All of that grows directly from the work of the committees,” he says. “That is the key. Despite being in a dangerous profession, most of us can retire in good health and enjoy life,” says Willett. “The NFPA made a difference for me in my personal life,” he adds.
ALAN R. EARLS is a writer based near Boston, Massachusetts. He specializes in technical topics, including those related to the fire service.