by John R. Paradise
Homeland security, while a relatively new term for many Americans, has been among the core missions of NFPA since the organization's founding more than a century ago.
At its most basic level, homeland security is about preserving public safety. It's about bolstering the nation's protective infrastructure, including its disaster-management network, and improving first responders' equipment and training. It's about building safer structures. It's about saving lives.
"An awful lot of homeland security issues rely on the first-responder community and the safety and integrity of the built environment," says Arthur Cote, NFPA executive vice-president and chief engineer. "We've been working in that arena for a long time. That's who we are."
So it's no surprise that at the request of the U.S. Air Force NFPA formed a technical committee project to develop a standard for "Mass Notification Systems" for buildings, says Robert Vondrasek, NFPA vice-president of Codes and Standards Operations.
"This is the 21st-century version of the air raid signal of the 1950s," Vondrasek says. "At a time when we're just taking down the last of the old air raid sirens, relics of the Cold War, and putting them into museums, we suddenly find ourselves faced with the need to alert the public in the face of a new threat."
Threats and instruction
"The mass notification system's purpose is to notify occupants of threats and instruct them as to what actions to take. These new signaling systems would interface with the building fire-alarm system and would permit communication with building occupants in the event of a terrorist incident. In some cases it may suppress the fire-alarm evacuation signaling, as evacuation of the building may not be the advisable course of action," he says.
"Though the attack on the World Trade Center towers was a large incident, it remained localized from an emergency management standpoint," he says. "The New York attack was roughly limited to lower Manhattan and remained fairly confined to the attack site. But that may not be the case when dealing with a large-scale chemical, biological, or radiological attack. If you have a large radioactive, biological, or chemical plume moving across municipal or state boundaries, you must be concerned about response ahead of the cloud. Who do you notify? How? When? Who has the authority to make these decisions? The application of public warning systems and protocols is directly tied to these timely communication decisions. This is another challenge for us."
NFPA is also participating in the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) Homeland Security Standards Panel.
"What the panel is doing is identifying where the gaps lie in standards as they relate to homeland security and trying to decide how to fill them," Vondrasek says.
In addition, NFPA is working with the Department of Homeland Security to identify, develop, and reference standards in the chemical-biological-radiological-explosive hazard area and NFPA is participating with over 50 other organizations—federal, state and local—on the Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability. This panel is charged with identifying equipment needed to respond to terrorist incidents and coordinating local, state and federal standardization of safety equipment and systems for emergency responders.
In a recent, proposed tentative interim amendment to NFPA 1994, Protective Ensembles for Chemical/Biological Terrorism Incidents, Jeffrey Stull, president of International Personnel Protection, Inc. and a member of NFPA's Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment Technical Committee, states, "NFPA 1994 is now being specified as the minimum standard for domestic preparedness by several organizations, including the Interagency Board for [First Responder] Equipment Standardization and InterOperability. Furthermore, federal organizations providing grant funds for the purchase of personal protective equipment, including protective ensembles, are now beginning to mandate that protective ensembles purchased with grant monies be compliant to NFPA 1994."
And in December, the Department of Homeland Security and the Technical Support Working Group awarded the first contract—to North Carolina State University—to develop the next generation of structural firefighting, personal protective equipment, which will be consistent with NFPA standards and include chemical and biological-agent protection.
"Most, if not all, of our codes and standards can be seen as directly or indirectly touching the concept of homeland security by either addressing emergency preparedness and response or improving the design of the built environment," says Casey Grant, assistant chief engineer for NFPA and secretary of the Standards Council. Grant says NFPA's codes and standards address the nation's emergency-preparedness community on two levels.
"They're focused on ‘big-picture' subjects, such as disaster response, and on more specific but just as critical operations-level matters, like training and equipment," he notes.
NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, and NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System, are two prime examples of NFPA's preparedness efforts on the macro level, he says.
NFPA 1600 provides guidance that cities and towns can use to develop their own disaster programs, allowing them to coordinate and manage their resources when preparing for, responding to, and recovering from large-scale emergencies and disasters. NFPA 1561 specifically spells out the roles and responsibilities of the emergency responders in the field at both the strategic and tactical levels.
Other examples of macro-level planning documents are NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities, which addresses how medical facilities should respond to mass-casualty incidents; NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments; and NFPA 1720, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments. These last two standards provide detailed information for the deployment of fire-service and emergency medical resources.
Emergency response and preparedness has been in the spotlight ever since September 11, 2001, Grant says.
"Those events made the entire public-safety community and others sit up and take stock," he says. "There was suddenly a new focus on codes and standards that support disaster preparedness. There was, and most assuredly still is, a push from many sectors to make sure that these standards are the best they can be. People were asking, ‘Are we really prepared to respond?'"
Aiding first responders
Of NFPA's 300-plus codes and standards, approximately 200 apply to safety in the built environment, while the rest apply directly to the first-responder community—their training, methods, and equipment.
For instance, NFPA 471, Recommended Practice for Responding to Hazardous Materials Incidents, provides specific operational and equipment information on responding to hazardous-materials incidents, including acts of terrorism. NFPA 472, Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents; NFPA 473, Competencies for EMS Personnel Responding to Hazardous Materials Incidents; NFPA 1951, Protective Ensembles for USAR Operations; and NFPA 1994 are also examples of NFPA's more operational-focused standards.
Immediately following 9/11, NFPA decided to provide first responders with free access on our Web site to these five standards, as well as excerpts from NFPA's Hazardous Materials Response Handbook.
"We felt these were the most germane standards to this particular incident," says Vondrasek. "I think all of us here agreed that we have an obligation to support and assist these first responders in every way we can, especially when they're dealing with new and unique challenges. If we have the information, it behooves us to get it out there."
In the weeks that followed, NFPA also produced a building-evacuation fact sheet that spells out the actions to take in the event of a large-scale emergency and provides building managers with information about disaster-preparedness plans. It also recommends which emergency messages to broadcast over a building's public-address systems.
In addition, NFPA conducted a series of free, one-day, evacuation-safety workshops for building safety personnel and building managers in 15 cities around the United States, Vondrasek says.
"We proposed these seminars for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions, and they supported the idea. We see this as another part of our public safety mission."
Shaping public policy
Even before the dust settled over New York City, many groups in the private sector, as well as state and federal government officials, entered the debate about national standards for emergency preparedness. FEMA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were among the federal agencies involved in the push.
Congress also addressed the issue of preparedness standards in the discussion leading up to the creation in January 2003 of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Suddenly, everyone was jumping on the emergency-preparedness bandwagon," Vondrasek says. "From the very start, we knew we had an important role to play because of our collective experience with standards related to emergency preparedness and emergency responders. We were in a perfect position to help the process evolve, but we wanted to be sure that no one was trying to reinvent the wheel."
Among the groups currently working toward defining a baseline level of national emergency preparedness is the ANSI Homeland Security Standards Panel.
Among the topics the panel is examining is the issue of biological agents:
The group's biggest concern in this area, Vondrasek says, are the devices for detecting biological, chemical, and radioactive agents that have flooded the market.
"Everyone is claiming theirs is the best all-purpose detection device for biological, chemical, or radioactive agents," he says. "But some of them are being manufactured and tested to no known standards. We're worried about the possible consequences."
In response to this concern, the Department of Homeland Security sponsored legislation in July that would limit a company's liability if it agreed to build biochemical detection devices to nationally recognized standards.
"This is one way the group feels we can ensure we're getting the best devices possible for the emergency responders to use," Vondrasek says.
Other key topics the panel is examining regarding standards gaps include biometrics for identifying and tracking individuals; emergency-responder training and certification programs related to tactics and the proper use of equipment; and standard-messaging, mass-communication protocols agencies can use to alert the public. Also being considered are risk-assessment models that can be used to assess the possible effects of a disaster, including geographic range and timelines, as well as the possibility of adopting security standards and protocols used in other countries, and cyber security to protect electronic communication systems, equipment, software, and data.
"It's a work in progress," Vondrasek says of the group's efforts. "We've focused and refocused ourselves several times. I think it's the nature of the beast. The issue of homeland security is huge. When you take a close look at it, you see that it has a lot of twists and turns."
NFPA also focused the Fall Education Conference held last November in Reno, Nevada, on homeland-security preparedness and response. Among the topics discussed were how to manage a chemical, biological, or nuclear incident affecting the commercial transportation industry, "best practices" for responding to homeland-security threats, and the role of public/private partnerships in restoring business and government services before, during, and after a disaster.
Homeland security theme
In addition, Donald Schmidt, senior vice-president and managing consultant with Marsh Risk Consulting, moderated a panel discussion on homeland-security preparedness and response. Eleven emergency-response and -management experts offered their perspectives on the most important and challenging issues currently facing the public and private sectors.
"Homeland security encompasses a great deal, and this discussion was designed to emphasize the most important points," said Schmidt. "There's much that needs to be done to institute safety measures and, by establishing public-private partnerships, both sectors can benefit."
Panel attendees learned how to perform a gap analysis of their existing emergency-management programs to incorporate lessons learned from 9/11 and were introduced to strategies their organizations can use to enhance preparedness. There was also discussion of developing a comprehensive industrial emergency-management program.
"There is always the threat of someone sabotaging your business," said instructor Richard Anderson, CFPS, of Merck & Co., Inc., who has more than 28 years of experience in industrial and emergency-services management.
"You must be prepared to evaluate the effectiveness and centralization of your business-continuity planning and crisis communications."
The panel discussions included:
History of involvement
"There is a great overlap between activities in which NFPA has always been engaged and the challenges posed by homeland security," says NFPA President James Shannon. "But the threat of terrorism has made us and the whole first-responder community seriously prepare for events that would have seemed pretty far-fetched just two and a half years ago.
"The needs assessment NFPA did last year at the request of the U.S. Fire Administration dramatically demonstrated how much must be done to ensure that our nation's first responders are ready to respond to a terrorist attack," he says. "NFPA has long urged that firefighters be trained to deal with issues like the collapse of a building with more than 50 occupants; that protocols be established to deal with chemical, biological, and radiological incidents; and that protective clothing and equipment that complies with our latest standards be used. All of these efforts and others have taken on new urgency since September 11. There is a new sense of priorities and a greater demand for training and information than existed before."
Both Vondrasek and Grant admit that defining a baseline of preparedness at the national level is a daunting—but fascinating—task in which to be involved.
"And in the end, the actual process of discussing the issues and making advances in some areas might just serve as a deterrent to future attacks," Vondrasek says. "Someone might just feel the United States is too well-prepared for a certain kind of incident. That is an encouraging thought in and of itself."