The Fire Protection Research Foundation: 25 Years On
For the past 25 years, the Fire Protection Research Foundation has provided fire and life-safety research that supports the overall mission of the National Fire Protection Association.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2008
The need for technical support to NFPA’s codes and standards played a significant role in the Foundation’s formation. In the mid-1970s, NFPA staff and the Board of Directors recognized a growing need to provide a resource to enhance the technical basis of NFPA codes and standards. So in 1982, the Board of Directors approved the formation of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation (now known as the Fire Protection Research Foundation).
According to the 1982 Annual Report of the NFPA, the Executive Director of the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation was John C. Gerard, former Chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. The Foundation was registered as a corporation first in Washington, D.C.
Gerard served until 1983 when he was appointed NFPA’s Washington, D.C. representative. The 1983 Annual Report of the NFPA notes that the Foundation’s office was moved from Washington, D.C. to Quincy, Massachusetts, and Rick Mulhaupt was named Administrator to the Foundation. He was later appointed Executive Director.
An article in the 1982 Fire Journal noted that the 1982 Board of Directors meeting included the appointment of the Foundation’s first trustees. Among those appointed was Harry C. Bigglestone. Today, the Research Foundation sponsors the Bigglestone Award, which is given annually to the paper appearing in Fire Technology that best represents excellence in the communication of fire protection concepts.
Mulhaupt served until 2004. Today’s staff is Executive Director Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., Program Director Casey C. Grant, P.E. and Foundation Administrator Eric Peterson.
To ensure that research carried out was independent, the Foundation was formed as a separate 401(c)(3) organization. It was given the following mission: to obtain and communicate objective usable solutions to problems from fire and other hazards through research.
From its early days, the Foundation has been engaged in major research programs, both domestic and international in scope, designed to provide the type of information that can better support fire safety codes and standards. Each project is guided by a project technical panel, which provides technical expertise and user input from sponsors, the research community, the fire service, NFPA technical committees, and other stakeholders.
As the Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary, here is a look back at some highlights through the eyes of some of its key contributors.
During the 1980’s mankind was confronted with the predicted perils of depleting the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer. At that time, both the NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation became directly involved on behalf of the fire protection community. According to Grant, both organizations provided important leadership roles in assisting with the transition away from environmentally harmful chemicals used for fire protection to more environmentally friendly replacements.
The threat of losing the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer depletion is predicted to be profound. During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, theories were put forth by scientists that man-made chemicals were slowly destroying the earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. This layer protects the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, and a depletion of this shield would reduce its effectiveness, causing significant adverse health and environmental effects.
In May 1985, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey published data that shocked the scientific community by showing an annually occurring loss of ozone over the South Pole that was so massive it had previously gone undetected. The hole in the ozone layer soon became a major prime-time news story. But not until September of 1987 did years of effort in the political arena finally came to fruition with the signing of the Montreal Protocol by the United States, the European Economic Community, and 23 other countries in Montreal, Canada.
Among the chemicals receiving focus were those used for fire protection purposes, and although they were used in much more limited quantities than other more common chemicals like refrigerants, they were considered to be particularly potent in terms of their ability to cause environmental damage. One family of man-made chemicals whose production was banned by the Montreal Protocol are the fire protection halons, which had long been an effective fire protection tool in portable extinguishers and total flooding systems.
At that time the Fire Protection Research Foundation and NFPA became fully engaged to address this problem. In addition to numerous symposia and forums provided all over the world to help educate fire safety professionals everywhere, along with multiple published articles, both the Research Foundation and NFPA took very specific constructive steps.
Specifically, the Fire Protection Research Foundation was engaged is three pivotal research projects that would have direct impact on this global topic. First was an overview report that provided a useful and important summary to clarify what was happening regarding wasteful full-scale field testing of Halon 1301 fire suppression systems. This was published in 1988 as "Halon 1301 Discharge Testing: A Technical Analysis."
Two additional reports followed in 1989, one of which was a follow-up to the aforementioned first report and was called "Enclosure Integrity Procedure for Halon 1301 and Total Flooding Systems."
This provided a specific method for testing enclosures without using a full-scale dump test, and at the time the proposed procedure was inserted as a new Appendix of NFPA 12A (with subsequent inclusion also in NFPA 2001) and today still serves as a classic example of research results being directly used by the NFPA codes and standards process.
The third of the three related Research Foundation reports was also issued in 1989 and has the title "Best and Essential Use: A Methodology." This is a landmark study that was directly used by the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) committee that was working on the updates to the Montreal Protocol that would soon follow. As such, this particular Research Foundation report had a far-reaching impact on the fire safety world we know today.
Fire risk assessment
From the beginning, the Research Foundation has recognized the value to NFPA codes and standards committees—and to fire protection engineering decision making generally—of the development of fire risk assessment as a language and a set of tools. Two major projects best illustrate this long-time focus.
According to John R. Hall, Jr., Ph.D., Assistant-Vice President of NFPA’s Fire Analysis & Research Division, during the latter half of the 1980’s, the Foundation sponsored a joint project by NIST, Fire Analysis & Research Division, and Benjamin-Clarke Associates to develop a generic fire risk assessment package for the evaluation of alternative products.
The motivation for the project was to move away from the then-active push to evaluate products solely on the basis of their combustion toxic potency.
According to Richard G. Gann of the Fire Research Division of BFRL at NIST, the model, which would be named Fire Risk Assessment Method (FRAMEworks) combined a fire scenario and behavioral scenario structure with associated probabilities, a zone model for fire development and smoke spread, a smoke alarm activation model, and a toxic impact model.
The second project was more focused and developed a fire risk assessment framework for evaluation of fire protection alternatives for the problem of storage of large quantities of flammable or combustible liquids in consumer-ready containers in big box retail and storage facilities. Sprinklers of various designs could be compared to innovative packaging design, floor drains, and other strategic approaches.
More recently, the Foundation, through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, has developed a guide for NFPA Committees on Incorporating Risk Concepts in NFPA Codes and Standards.
Fire sprinkler technology
According to Russell P. Fleming, P.E., Executive Vice President of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, during the past 25 years, the Foundation has made many significant contributions to the understanding of fire sprinkler technology, perhaps the most significant of which was the Quick Response Sprinkler Research Project initiated in May 1984.
Building on the development of the residential sprinkler in the late 1970’s, the project was aimed at the development and timely introduction of fast response sprinkler technology into codes and standards.
The project was divided into two parts, with advances made both in the area of Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers for high-challenge fires and in the application of the new technology to sprinklers intended for a broad range of occupancies between residential and industrial, now known as quick response (QR) sprinklers.
Fundamental decisions were made at that time, such as the decision to define fast response as an attribute of the sprinkler hardware rather than the installed condition.
The groundwork laid by the Foundation’s efforts has proven solid, such that more than 70 percent of the 50 million sprinklers installed last year in the United States and Canada were fast response sprinklers.
Fire detection and alarm systems
In 1990, the National Fire Protection Association Research Foundation, in collaboration with the Fire Detection Institute (FDI), awarded the International Fire Detection Research Project to the Building and Fire Research Laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
According to Wayne D. Moore, P.E., the efforts in this seven-year project looked at three key issues using early versions of computational fluid dynamic (CFD) modeling to determine the effects of flat beamed ceilings on detector and sprinkler response, the effects of sloped ceilings, and the effects of HVAC-induced air flow from slot and various diffusers on smoke detector response.
The research also showed the need to evaluate HVAC systems based on the types of venting used for performance-based smoke detector applications, but did not provide prescriptive changes to NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®.
The research was the impetus for the first changes made to the application of smoke detectors in beamed ceilings and confirmed the dead air space that had been in the Code for some time. In more recent times, The Foundation has continued this work through modeling and validation studies related to various aspects of detection system design.
Today’s codes and standards—today’s research needs
Today’s codes and standards environment is evolving and research needed to underpin it is changing with it. Among the current issues facing NFPA Committees:
New Technology/New Applications: It has always been a challenge for the existing body of codes and standards to appropriately address the introduction of new technology. Prescriptive provisions are naturally written around existing products, and technology developers often don’t know where to start seeking recognition of their innovation in regulation. The Foundation provides an independent resource for the "code road mapping" of new fire technology as well as an effective means to identify the performance criteria against which such technology will be evaluated.
Responding to Regulatory Restrictions: Many new developments in fire technology have themselves arisen from an innovative response to environmental or other regulatory restrictions. For example, the Foundation’s early work on halons and halon replacements provided a vehicle for the acceptance of new and existing technologies by enabling the development and acceptance of relevant performance information.
Performance Basis: Most NFPA standards have traditionally had provisions permitting alternative materials and methods provided justification for equivalency can be provided. The last decade has seen a movement towards the development of performance-based codes and standards, wherein the fire safety objectives of the document can be satisfied using a performance approach. Both of these types of provisions call for the development of technical information to substantiate deviations from prescriptive code requirements. This type of research need dictates a more strategic approach to the development of data, which will inform design decisions over a range of scenarios.
Today, the Research Foundation is responding to these challenges with activities in a number of areas, including detection and signaling, hazardous materials, electrical safety, fire suppression, storage of commodities, fire fighter protective clothing and equipment, and others.
Most recently, the Research Foundation has worked to post all of its research reports on its Web site, www.nfpa.org/foundation.
This is an important step in helping to make the results of these research project available to all who are able to utilize this information.
The next 25 Years
Each of these examples describes how the Foundation was able to respond to a codes and standards development issue with critical applied research results. As the Foundation marks its anniversary, its future will remain linked to its projects, reports, and their impact on tomorrow’s codes and standards. "The next 25 years will bring new challenges to the fire safety regulatory framework. We welcome the opportunity to meet them," Kathleen Almand says.
Thanks to Kathleen A. Almand, P.E.; Casey C. Grant, P.E., Dr. John R. Hall, Jr.; Russell P. Fleming, P.E.; Wayne D. Moore, P.E.; and Richard D. Gann for their past and present contributions to the Foundation and input in preparing this article.