NFPA’s Chief Technician
Remembering Robert S. Moulton
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2008
By Art Cote
Much has been said about NFPA’s first full-time employee, Franklin H. Wentworth, who was Secretary of the association from 1909 to 1930 and Managing Director from 1930 to 1939. But the man who was hired second has had no less an impact on NFPA’s fire protection and life safety role today.
Robert S. Moulton may be less well known, but from the moment he was hired as Assistant Secretary on March 15, 1920, he was nearly as instrumental to the evolution of NFPA into a premier developer of technical information on fire protection and prevention.
In just three years after his start, Moulton set NFPA down the path of using scientific research and discovery to save lives. In 1923 in a report delivered at the NFPA Annual Meeting, he noted that "there has never been attempted any comprehensive compilation of statistics on loss of life and injury by fire." He proposed that NFPA undertake this statistical effort, launching one of the fundamental services provided to this day by NFPA’s Fire Analysis Division.
Moulton also forged NFPA’s close connection with the fire protection engineering community. The following year, he proposed to the NFPA Executive Committee that it create a special section of the association specifically for fire protection engineers. The proposal was presented to the membership at the 1924 Annual Meeting, but after a lively debate was tabled. While not successful at that time, he refused to let the idea die. Finally in 1948 at Moulton’s urging NFPA appointed a special committee "to consider the professional status of fire protection engineering and to report to the Board of Directors their recommendations as to what actions, if any, the association should take to promote recognition of fire protection engineering as a profession." As a result of that report, in 1950 the Society of Fire Protection Engineers was organized as a section of NFPA, and Moulton was appointed as the Society’s first Secretary.
His influence was also marked on NFPA Building Exits Code. One of the key architects of this landmark document was its Staff Secretary, Bob Moulton. Now known as NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, this Code continues to be one of NFPA’s most influential documents.
In July of 1928, Moulton became NFPA’s first Technical Secretary, a title that clearly indicated his role within the association and one that he would keep for the next 33 years until his retirement in 1961.
The next year Moulton organized, in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, an NFPA conference in Washington, D.C. on spontaneous heating and ignition. This 1929 conference attracted 150 attendees and resulted in the government’s request for NFPA to form the Spontaneous Heating and Ignition Technical Committee. Thus began NFPA’s ongoing cooperative efforts with the federal government to provide technical information on fire safety for use by the various federal agencies—efforts that included the development of NFPA codes and standards for the government’s use and adoption.
In 1934, NFPA was given by its authors the rights to the Handbook of Fire Protection. (The authors were Everett U. Crosby, Henry A. Fiske, and H. Walter Forster.) First published in 1896, the year of NFPA’s birth, the Handbook was by 1934 well established and in its seventh edition. All three authors were active in the NFPA and were confident that the association would carry on their legacy of technical excellence. To ensure that the Handbook would be compatible with NFPA standards, the Board of Directors appointed a special committee to review the text and named Moulton editor.
Under Moulton’s leadership extensive revisions and additions were undertaken for the eighth edition published in 1935. Moulton greatly expanded the number of technical contributors to the Handbook with over 100 fire protectionists involved as authors, text reviewers, or technical sources.
Over the next 20 years he served as editor of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh editions of NFPA’s Fire Protection Handbook as it became the premier reference source for fire protection and prevention information in the U.S. and around the world. It was Moulton who insisted that the Handbook provide the history and rationale for the burgeoning fire protection technology.
He set the standard for technical excellence for those of us who followed in his footsteps.