The NFPA looks back on 125 years while working to serve global stakeholders today and into the future.
This year marks 125 years since the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was started back in 1896. Not too many organizations get to celebrate a milestone like this, so we are certainly taking the time to honor this landmark event in a myriad of ways, including a year-long online 125th Anniversary Conference Series with targeted education tracks including one in November devoted to systems, storage and suppression. And if you are a history buff, be sure to visit nfpa.org/125th for a 3D model with some of the most notable moments in fire, electrical, and life safety over the last 125 years.
One thing we know for certain is that we did not get to this momentous occasion alone. Safety is a system, and we all play a role. So, I’d like to start this piece by saying, ‘Thank you’.
Our Association took shape when a solution was needed for the numerous ways that sprinklers were being installed in the new, industrialized world. Nine radically different standards for the size of piping and spacing of sprinklers were being used within a 100-mile radius of Boston, creating chaos and consternation. Getting to a common standard resulted in NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems – the first standard created by NFPA.
Around the same time, the electrical community found itself dealing with multiple standards too. Five recognized US documents addressed the safe use of electrical equipment, creating similar confusion and controversy. So, some organizations came together and issued the ‘National Electrical Code of 1897’. Today, the NEC is the most used NFPA standard, applied in all 50 states, and considered the world’s pre-eminent electrical guidance.
It became clear that standards were needed in other areas – sometimes at the urging of labor groups or policy makers, other times it was professionals in a field seeking guidance, or due to public outcry after a catastrophe.
From standards developer to safety subject matter expert
Over the last century, NFPA has responded with relevant benchmarks for building and life safety, electrical systems, fire protection systems, emergency response, new technologies, community risk reduction, and many other focus areas. The arduous task of developing 325-plus NFPA codes, standards, and handbooks falls to volunteers from 42 countries who fill more than 9,000 technical committee seats. We all owe these professionals and practitioners a debt of gratitude.
The enduring and expanding trust in the NFPA brand has brought us to our current role as a global information and knowledge leader. While being a standards development organization (SDO) will likely be our legacy, we are increasingly known for the research, data, training, policy guidance, content, and solutions that we offer to help others connect the dots on safety.
Managing safety in an ever-evolving world
In my role as CEO and President of NFPA, I am often asked, ‘What’s next?’. The simple answer is we want to meet our audiences where they are so we can help them successfully and safely do their jobs. But, before I explain that a little, let’s look back at some of the incidents and issues that have not only shaped NFPA but the building and life safety world and fire protection industry in general.
After NFPA was formed, sprinklers evolved somewhat but the technology remained relatively the same for 70 years. Then, in the 1970s we saw some changes with the emergence of fast-response sprinklers, residential sprinklers, and quick-response sprinklers. Those innovations led to early suppression and fast response (ESFR) sprinklers in the late 1980s – innovations that allowed for better protection of storage arrangements from ceiling only protection.
These days, we don’t wait for 70 years to pass to make adjustments in safety. Innovation, it seems, comes in spurts and often comes about from circumstances. We need only look back over the last 18 months and consider all the challenges, observations, stop-gap solutions, and conversations centered around repurposing spaces, establishing satellite sites, reconfiguring healthcare settings, and putting inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) on hold. Chances are the pivoting that took place during the pandemic will influence future editions of NFPA codes and standards, and our safety infrastructure will be better because of lessons learned during a precarious time.
We are also witnessing a boom in warehouse construction lately. The incredible uptick in ecommerce has spurred changes in product materials, as well as packaging, and resulted in non-traditional structures being used for inventory. According to Digital Commerce 360, higher storage arrangements in warehouse settings and industrial spaces were needed to meet the 44% jump alone in the US for ecommerce during 2020. The States experienced the highest annual ecommerce growth in at least two decades, nearly tripling the 15.1% jump in 2019. This surge, as you can imagine, called for more warehouses and different safety approaches.
Other new storage considerations are, literally, stacking up. The Fire Protection Research Foundation, our research affiliate, has researched and conducted popular webinars on the recent trend of parking garages with double or triple stacked cars – proving yet again that evolving times warrant evolving fire protection technology.
Using lessons from the past to change outcomes
History itself is also a valuable arbiter of areas where attention is needed. Incidents like the Cocoanut Grove Fire and Station Night Club prompted code changes and enforcement improvements in entertainment venues. And as our new seminal research report ‘Fire Safety in the United States since 1980: Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem’ shows, we have seen fires in healthcare settings greatly reduced due to lessons learned from catastrophic incidents at the Cleveland Clinic (1929), Mercy Hospital (1950), St. Anthony Hospital (1949), and Hartford Hospital (1961). Those deadly events led to code changes that ultimately helped the healthcare industry widely embrace NFPA 101, Life Safety Code in the 1960s.
But to their credit, the healthcare industry in the US didn’t just leave it at that. We saw safety enhanced even further when The US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published Medicare and Medicaid Programs; Fire Safety Requirements for Certain Health Care Facilities, which announced that hospitals and other medical facilities were to follow NFPA 101 as well as provisions within NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code. CMS also deemed that facility ITM must be in accordance with NFPA 110, Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems, as well as specific editions of both NFPA 99 and NFPA 101. This is a fine example of the government responsibility and investment in safety that we point to in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™. This is the level of accountability that would benefit places like the Middle East, India, Russia, Asia, and South America where oxygen-related deaths and other tragedies occurred during Covid times.
We can’t forget the workers
And while fire protection systems play a critical role in protecting properties and the public, let’s not forget the importance of keeping workers safe. Increasingly, NFPA is seeing Fortune 500 businesses seeking online (and some classroom) training centered around NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. NFPA 70E covers requirements for safe work practices to protect personnel by reducing exposure to major electrical hazards. It was originally developed at the request of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to help companies and employees avoid workplace injuries and fatalities due to shock, electrocution, arc flash, and arc blast.
Workplace hazards don’t only pertain to electrical systems though, as history has shown us. NFPA codes and standards reflect the heartbreaking lessons learned in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which remains among the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. In that horrible fire, exits, stairwells, and doors were locked, and 146 workers paid the price. NFPA started working on building exits code guidance after that tragic event to ensure that people can get out of a building, and NFPA 101 grew extensively. Today, NFPA 101 reminds us that we can have emergencies occur in a building that may not necessarily be fire – an earthquake being one, for example.
Another moment in time that influenced NFPA fire protection codes and standards was the Imperial Sugar dust explosion in 2008. That deadly dust explosion in the state of Georgia raised awareness of the hazards associated with dust and prompted new requirements for facilities to perform dust hazards analysis. Soon, all NFPA dust standards will be consolidated into a single dust standard, and our training division is set to launch a new online learning program in September – because although dust may seem insignificant, it can wreak havoc on a facility and those who work there.
Transforming to serve today’s stakeholders
The great thing about celebrating an anniversary is it allows you to look back in time and recall the different touchpoints that not only shaped an organization but the wider industry that is served. At NFPA, we are mindful of the past but spend most of our time focused on what the future means for our organization and the constituents that we serve so that there are less missteps and so that our audiences are always improving safety outcomes. And we have learned that people learn differently than they did 10 years ago, let alone 10 decades ago.
Today, professionals access information in diverse ways. There are code aficionados who know every element of industry standards, learners who prefer fact sheets and at-a-glance content, fans of our technical blogs, and digital disciples looking for interactive solutions. The latter has led our organization to revolutionize the delivery of codes and standards and to become more of a digitally and globally connected authority. Covid only enhanced our efforts to provide online solutions to stakeholders. By giving professionals and practitioners online access to insights and information, we are better positioned to realize our vision of eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. This, and because of our global mission, is why we are transforming from a code book publisher to a digital solutions provider.
The centerpiece of this transformation is NFPA LiNK™, which we launched a year ago. As I write this article, 85% of our 325-plus codes are in LiNK. Soon, LiNK will feature all NFPA documents, as well as enhanced situational content and translated guidance. As new codes are released, they too will be added into LiNK. It’s a one-stop digital solution that is changing the face of safety – and the trajectory of NFPA.
NFPA training and certification offerings that are embraced the world over, are increasingly online too. Even NFPA Journal, our award-winning membership publication, has gone digital while still respecting there are some who enjoy the feel of a magazine in their hands. The Journal is not only printed on a quarterly basis but there are also exclusive online articles, podcasts, and ‘Learn Something New’ videos added on a regular basis so that trends, major incidents, and innovative ideas are covered in a timely manner.
Not your grandparents’ NFPA, but the mission remains the same
As I said at the outset, the goal of NFPA today and into the future is to meet stakeholders where they are. Digital allows us to do more, for more people, and will help us to achieve new milestones during our next 125 years in business. I hope you will check out the more global, connected version of NFPA. After all, knowledge is power; and there’s a world of information just a click away.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org