Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2017.

Process Review

To keep up with rapidly evolving technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, NFPA considers new ways to make the standards development process quicker and more nimble

BY JESSE ROMAN

It’s amazing to consider: in 2006 there were no smartphones, no Netflix streaming, no Uber, and no Amazon Prime. Hardly anyone used Facebook. And no one flew drones in their backyard. The world, it seems, can change in an instant.

That’s especially true in public safety, as industries embrace avant-garde technologies that pose unique safety challenges, and as first responders adopt high-tech tools such as robots, sensors, and complex data analytics instruments. How can codes and standards developers keep up with it all?

It’s a question that is becoming more acute as NFPA tackles a new range of technology-based standards, such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and energy storage systems (ESS), and tries to keep pace with advancements in other areas such as the National Electrical Code® (NEC®). The organization has responded, making key changes that streamline the development of new standards in order to keep pace with our evolving world. In some cases, the changes can shave months and even years off of the time it takes to complete a new standard.

In the past, the NFPA Standards Council, which meets three times per year, would consider a new standard piecemeal. At the first meeting, it would consider the project request and vote to gather public opinion. At a subsequent meeting it would look at public reaction to the proposal and possibly vote on whether to form a new technical committee. The council would use a third meeting to approve the proposed committee roster, only then paving the way for the drafting of a new standard to begin. In the blink of an eye, a year or more would pass without so much as an initial technical committee meeting.

“I don’t think anybody on the council was happy with the old process, where we looked at a particular request for two, three, sometimes four meetings,” said Kerry Bell, the Standards Council chairman. “The council discussed it and felt NFPA staff could do a lot of the legwork and let the council look at everything all at once. For the last few new projects, the council reviewed each one just once—we had all the information available to us to initiate the project.”

The new workflow has had the desired impact. For example, in January NFPA received a public request to create a new standard for electrical inspector qualifications. Staff gathered public opinion on the new proposal’s merits, identified qualified and willing volunteers to serve on the technical committee to write it, and passed all of the information to NFPA’s Standard’s Council for its annual April meeting. The council approved standards development activities and the initial technical committee roster during that meeting. The committee’s initial meeting took place in May, a mere four months after NFPA received the initial public request—in standards development time, it’s warp speed.

Going forward, other established mechanisms may be used to keep some of these newer high-tech-based documents moving forward with the times. When technology or circumstances change rapidly and prompt a quick amendment to a standard, such changes are possible through NFPA’s Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA) process, which has been in place for decades. A TIA can be submitted by anyone to propose or change text in a current edition of an NFPA standard. These submissions receive public review and technical committee review and balloting before going to the Standards Council, which ultimately decides whether to add the proposed text to the standard between full revision cycles.

“Through its history I think NFPA has done a great job of monitoring the environment and taking actions to adjust its process to meet the needs of the community,” Bell said. “Within the last few years there have been requests in a lot of areas that we haven’t perhaps looked at before, but I am confident that NFPA and the council will adapt to whatever need arises.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal.