Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on May 2, 2014.

NFPA’S TECHNICAL QUESTIONS SERVICE—also commonly referred to as “advisory services”—provides association members and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) access to NFPA technical staff. Users of the service can ask questions by phone or via online submission about any NFPA code or standard, and NFPA technical staff will answer them. Last year, NFPA’s technical staff responded to 11,254 cases through the service; I handled 820 related to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. A case can involve multiple questions, as well as the back-and-forth of follow-up correspondence with related questions.

It’s encouraging to see the service get this kind of use, but it could be even greater. Members and AHJs who don’t know about the service, or may be unclear about the method and guidelines for submitting questions, could be missing out on an important tool to help them do their jobs better. NFPA makes it clear that this is not a consultation service, but rather an effective way of better understanding the intent, scope, and detail of NFPA codes and standards.

Some members prefer to submit written questions rather than rely on a telephone conversation. Each method of interacting with staff has its benefits. A telephone conversation permits for follow-up questions to be posed immediately or for staff to provide the answer in a different way if the caller has difficulty grasping the concept. A written inquiry and its answer, on the other hand, can sometimes present less room for misunderstanding and the answer lives on for future reference.

In posting written inquiries, members should include, to the best of their abilities, the information that NFPA technical staff needs to understand the question. For example, an inquiry on NFPA 101 will seldom be complete if the occupancy classification is omitted; a question applicable to a health care occupancy might elicit a different response than an identical question applicable to an industrial occupancy. Plans and figures are not allowed to be submitted with members’ inquiries, as questions need to be kept generic to avoid falling into the category of consulting services. Carefully chosen words can substitute for visual elements and still keep the question generic. Where necessary information is missing, the email reply from staff may ask for additional detail, lengthening the time it takes to provide a useful answer.

A question frequently heard by NFPA technical staff during a telephone conversation with a member or AHJ is, “Can I get that in writing?” Staff reply that they will answer, by email, questions submitted via the “Technical Questions” tab at the applicable document information page, such asnfpa.org/101. Note that each of the columns within the “In Compliance” department of NFPA Journal now carries the URL for accessing its related doc info page.

I usually ask callers who want an answer in writing whether I’ve adequately answered their question or whether they have follow-up questions—I’m trying to learn why they want or think they need an answer in writing. Members typically reply that they want or need to take the “answer from NFPA” to the AHJ. I explain that all written responses carry a disclaimer advising that any opinion expressed is the personal opinion of NFPA staff and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its technical committees. The disclaimer also advises that the response is neither intended, nor should be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.

The technical questions service is well supported by customer relationship management (CRM) software. Permanent, searchable records are kept of all activity to help ensure that inquiries are directed to the appropriate staff member and do not go unanswered. The advisory program is labor intensive, and an answer prepared for one member might be useful to others; with that in mind, written questions and answers can be scrubbed of identifiers and used as the bases for handbook commentary and online pages of frequently asked questions.

To submit a question by phone, call 800-344-3555, option 3, from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. To submit questions online, visit the document information page for the code or standard you have questions about and click the “Technical Questions” tab.

Ron Coté, P.E., is principal life safety engineer at NFPA.