News From NFPA: Connecting The Dots With ITM Data Exchange

Inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) of fire protection systems plays a significant role in managing facility risks.

By Victoria Hutchison

Fire protection professionals strive to eliminate loss of life or injury, to minimize property damage and business interruption, and to reduce facility risks. We see safety as an ecosystem rather than one single item to check off a punch list; and impress at every turn the important role that fire safety systems play in protecting people and property. In the built environment, fire protection professionals are the yin to the facility manager’s yang.

Fire protection systems are an essential part of a building’s safety ecosystem. The installation of such systems is just the beginning of a more dynamic safety process that requires diligent inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) efforts. ITM plays a significant, fundamental role in managing facility risks, and ensures that systems will activate as intended, when needed, and ultimately minimize downtime — because down time equates to accumulated risk.

As a facility manager, you are likely familiar with NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems and NFPA 72® National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, but did you know that there are nearly 70 NFPA codes and standards requiring some form of ITM? Did you know that these standards reference hundreds of activities, such as fire pump tests, fire alarm inspections, and sprinkler inspections that need to be conducted each year to minimize risk? And are you aware that organizations throughout the fire protection community are collecting and managing tremendous quantities of data from ITM activities — for the betterment of building safety?

ITM data
Photo: Getty Images

What’s Going On With ITM Data?

In recent years, ITM activity data has been used to inform decisions related to system reliability, risk acceptability, and ITM frequencies (risk, occupancy-based, and performance-based). This data is being captured in thousands of different formats, through hundreds of different approaches, and by thousands of different groups but one key thing has been lacking to date — standardization. This void has restricted the ability to determine sound performance-based inspection frequencies and prevents stakeholders from exchanging and analyzing data that can influence safety and efficiencies.

Diverse data collection formats and structures present challenges for holistic analytics of systems performance. There are currently several digital solutions for capturing ITM data with each providing unique value to contractors, facility owners, and AHJs. Mandating a standardized format might stifle innovation or market development — and that does not serve society well. So, members of the fire protection community, including the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA, began to look at data-informed decision making and common formatting for data.

The goal has been to capture and standardize ITM data to inform collaborative research and large-scale analytics without triggering a seismic paradigm shift in ITM data collection strategies for the industry.

A New Strategy

To harness the true value of ITM data, we realized early on that we would need to embrace a new and more flexible strategy — a process that allows for unlimited locations, unlimited expansion or extensibility, and little-to-no knowledge about the ways to reach systems information or data. It occurred to us that this is the basic tenet behind the world wide web. So, we determined that if we leverage the same concepts used for the web and apply it to the universe of ITM data, it will allow us to avoid a stringent “everyone should comply to a single form or model” approach and allow for a simpler, solution-oriented “explain the properties of your model for others to use” strategy.

ITM Data Exchange Model

Now, as a research project manager for a global organization that deals with a broad spectrum of safety professionals and practitioners, I know all too well not to get too in the weeds on research, data, and analytics with most audiences so, I will break it down as simply as possible. Have you ever sketched out an idea, problem, or process on a whiteboard? If you’re trying to explain the flow of information, a process, or key entities and the relationships between them, I bet you start drawing circles and arrows on your whiteboard to convey this information. The circles likely represent the people, places, or items you are talking about and the arrows represent the relationships between them. This concept, at its core, is a graph data model. It is simple to create, easy to visualize, logical to understand, and easy to query at scale.

We recognized that we needed a comprehensive, scalable, and extensible data model that allows for ITM data standardization so that stakeholders can share data and learn from advanced analytics. This active ITM Data Exchange research project has been underway since 2019, and the research findings will be released in the first quarter of 2021.

The new data model essentially organizes ITM data elements, standardizes how they relate to one another and defines the items or equipment being described. Depending on the vendor, some of you may collect data on every fire protection device within your facility, while others may just collect the information required by the standard. Since our methodology is agile by design, disparate data like this can be easily combined from different sources and exported in a standardized way. The data model can be changed or expanded incrementally, new data types can be added or deleted, without affecting the rest of the model or previously submitted data. Because the properties of the model are defined upfront and the data elements are referenced by unique identifiers, variations in facilities ITM data can easily be adapted to a standardized structure so that predictive analytics can be generated.

ITM data
Figure 1: Visualization of Graph Data Model

Although this diagram above is not the data model itself, it exemplifies what the data model produces once filled with data. ​With this developed graph data model, data from diverse databases can now be transformed into a common format with consistent terminologies, vocabularies, and coding schemes to enable systematic analyses. This allows us to ask questions about our safety systems, much like we ask questions about anything on the web. As with everything we do at the Research Foundation, we trust that the findings will provide new insights, help stakeholders do their jobs successfully — and reduce risk in the world.

The Impact

There has been a growing appreciation for the importance and transformative power of data by the Research Foundation, NFPA, and the public safety industry overall. This new data exchange model enables us to harness the true value of ITM information. And although I recognize that facility managers juggle numerous tasks on any given day, knowing more about ITM insights should help you in your role, not hinder you. With standardized ITM data, facility managers and building owners will be able to make decisions, optimize system reliability, and maximize system efficiency and effectiveness — based on actual system insights — locally and industry-wide.

It’s one thing to have gut instinct, something facility managers often have in spades, but can you imagine having access to large scale analytics that will not only inform your local facility decision-making but influence the development and direction of fire protection systems overall?

And the good news is you won’t have to waste precious hours learning the nitty-gritty of how the data model works or how to develop it for your own facility. This model will be made available to you to use on your own facility’s ITM data; and whether you manage one building or 50+ facilities worldwide you can get the data-driven insights you need to optimize system efficiency and minimize your risks.

This data exchange model project is just one reason I love my job and being part of forward-facing fire protection, building and life safety communities.

Hutchison is a research project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), the research affiliate of NFPA. At the Foundation, her research is focused on the fire hazards associated with emerging technologies such as energy storage systems, the reliability and effectiveness of suppression and detection systems, and how to leverage data collection and analytics to support engineering decisions, among other relevant fire and life safety related issues. Victoria is a graduate of Oklahoma State University (USA) and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (USA), where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology and her Master of Science degree in Fire Protection Engineering, respectively. She also has past experience at a fire protection engineering firm where her focus was on fire protection system design and engineering analyses.

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