Facility Safety Is A 360° Task

During 2021, the National Fire Protection Association (NPFA) marked its 125th year of protecting people and property.

By Facility Executive Staff
From the December 2021 Issue

The National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA as it is more commonly known, turned 125 years old on November 6, 2021. The global self-funded nonprofit is well known to those who own or manage properties because of the hundreds of codes and standards that the Association develops in the interest of safety. As the organization winds down its year-long celebration of this impressive milestone, Facility Executive posed three key questions to NFPA President and CEO, Jim Pauley.

National Fire Protection Association
Jim Pauley, President and CEO, NFPA

Facility Executive: The “safety” thread runs through nearly every aspect of our lives, is there a common thread?

Jim Pauley: Yes, and it is that safety is a system.

Several years back, there were a few high-profile tragedies—the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, CA. Both resulted in a tremendous loss of life and exposed breakdowns in the very things we know are essential in fire and life safety—the use and enforcement of codes and standards. Around the same time, I met with fire officials in the Middle East, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, and Argentina. The focus of those conversations? How can we get policymakers to have a rudimentary understanding of the importance of codes and standards?

These incidents and interactions underscored that we were looking at things all wrong. Everyone involved in each case looked at safety in isolation, through a single lens based on where they sat and what their role was. That’s when we determined that no one was connecting the dots on safety and set out to ensure that professionals, practitioners, policy makers, and the public know that everyone plays a role in safety.

National Fire Protection Association
(Image: National Fire Protection Association)

To help people wrap their heads around this concept, we developed the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a visual framework which is made up of eight interconnected components that must work together to keep people and property safe. What we know is that when tragedy occurs, it is typically because there was a breakdown in one or more of the following areas:

  • Government Responsibility. Safety begins with elected officials creating a regulatory environment where laws, policies, and spending priorities are dictated by public safety needs, not by special interests.
  • Development and Use of Current Codes. The latest research, learnings, and innovations are incorporated into codes and standards to further safety and the ability to address new hazards.
  • Reference Standards. Standards are actually a system of standards. For instance, the building code may tell you what type of exterior material can be used on a building, but it references another standard that says how the material must be tested. Following one part without the other leaves a significant safety gap.
  • Investment in Safety. I describe this point along two lines. First, is research. We need continued research on the new problems we are facing to keep up with new risks and solutions. Thus, the reason that NFPA has two research arms. The second way is to prioritize the decisions being made. An example of this, and a poor one at that, occurred at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019. I read in Architectural Design that church officials decided not to install fire protection systems in the attic because they deemed the oak framing too precious and sprinklers too risky to artwork and relics. Their view was short-sighted with dramatic consequences. NFPA has standards specific to cultural and historical buildings because there are unique considerations for preserving these icons.
  • Skilled Workforce. Professionals and practitioners that do work in the safety system must have the right training and skills.
  • Code Compliance. Enforcement of codes and standards needs to be thought about throughout the entire life cycle of a building. Compliance doesn’t begin and end at the construction phase. The minimum safety guidance that is found in more than 325 NFPA codes and standards should be followed and enforced during the planning, zoning, reconstruction, and demolition phases. But, what we know is that compliance, unfortunately, ranges from timely to terrifying. It is not enough to use standards; these need to be enforced.
  • Preparedness and Emergency Response. It is highly important that we have well-trained and well-resourced first responders. Today our fire, EMS, and police personnel must be prepared to respond to all types of hazards.
  • Informed Public. Finally, educating the public about dangers posed by fire, electrical, and other life safety hazards is more important than ever. Think about the recent crowd surge deaths that occurred in Houston, TX. Did the concertgoers understand the importance of situational awareness? Escape planning? Did they know where exits and security personnel were located? Information is power.

FE: What is a weak link for facility managers/owners and their safety plans?

Pauley: I would love to see building owners and facility managers make a greater investment in safety in 2022 by recognizing the critical need to dig deeper and keep learning. One of the great things about NFPA celebrating our 125th anniversary this year was it allowed us to look back in time and recall the different touchpoints that not only shaped our organization, but the wider industry that is served. But frankly, most of our time at NFPA is spent focused on what the future holds for our organization and the wide range of audiences that we serve. And one key lesson we have learned is that people learn differently than they did 10 years ago, let alone 10 decades ago. Thus, the reason, for the training and certification transformation NFPA has been orchestrating.

Training and certification can help facility managers learn cutting-edge information and be prepared for any situation that may unfold on-site (or impact their campus). Think about all the new building and life safety considerations that have surfaced in recent years—active shooters, civil unrest, wildfires and other manmade/natural disasters, green building trends, cyber security threats to fire protection and building systems, pandemic practices—not to mention the influx of new technologies throughout buildings.

At NFPA, we understand facility managers juggle a lot of tasks. And we understand the lament that there is “not enough hours in the day to get the job done, let alone time to devote to one particular area of focus within facilities.” But simply put, facility managers and building owners cannot let progress outpace safety. That is why our organization has revisited and/or developed new NFPA training and certification offerings, so busy professionals can keep up to speed for safety’s sake. Our online and virtual programs allow people to learn on their own schedule, from their office or home. During COVID-19, workers recognized the need to keep evolving and furthering career capabilities; and from everything I have read and all we are witnessing at NFPA, that trend will continue in the post-pandemic world.

FE: Looking at 2021 and into 2022, what advice do you offer to facility managers and their teams to strengthen safety plans?

Pauley: If there is one thing we have learned since 1896, it is the need to balance what we have traditionally done within the safety realm for over a century (for example, the National Electrical Code®, Fire Code, and the Life Safety Code®) while tackling the new issues, insights, and innovations that are evolving faster and more frequently these days (remote inspections, cannabis grow and processing facilities, electric vehicle safety, and wildfire policy needs). In that same spirit, I would challenge those responsible for facilities to use the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to foster conversations, internally and externally, about new solutions to persistent problems and ways to address potential new hazards. My second ask of those same leaders would be to identify areas where they, individually and organizationally, can grow more and influence life safety changes. If Facility Executive readers can commit to these two things, alone, the built environment will be stronger.

For more about NFPA’s history and to access resources and information for facilities from the National Fire Protection Association visit www.nfpa.org/125th.

Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at acosgrove@groupc.com.