The Architect of NFPA's Standards System
Remembering Richard E. Stevens
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2008
For more than three decades, NFPA’s technical standards activities were influenced by Richard E. Stevens. Dick joined NFPA in 1950 as an engineer in the Fire Records Department, working directly for NFPA Technical Secretary Robert Moulton. That year, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) was organized as an NFPA section, and Stevens was appointed assistant secretary to Moulton, SFPE’s first secretary.
Stevens’ first real national exposure came when he was appointed project manager of the fire tests the Los Angeles Fire Department conducted in 1959 and 1961 to evaluate the effectiveness of fire protection devices in schools. The tests, organized in the wake of the 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, showed how fast smoke became untenable in open-stairway school buildings.
Stevens final reports on the tests, Operation School Burning 1 & 2, published in 1959, stated that most of the fire protection methods used then were unsatisfactory and that prompt fire department notification and rapid evacuation were essential.
In 1961, Stevens and Chester Babcock were named assistant technical secretaries to NFPA’s new technical secretary, George Tryon. A year later, he was elected secretary-treasurer of SFPE, a position he held until SFPE became an independent society in 1971.
In 1966, Stevens and Babcock were named technical secretaries of NFPA, and in 1969, Stevens was named director of Engineering Services, responsible for administering and managing the NFPA standards-making system. During his tenure, he served as staff liaison to 22 technical committees and as secretary to the Safety to Life Committee for 11 years, shepherding the transformation of NFPA 101® from the Building Exits Code to the Life Safety Code®.
This experience prepared Stevens for the challenge of restructuring the NFPA standards-making system to meet increasing legal and governmental scrutiny.
In 1970, the federal government’s involvement in the NFPA standards-making system took several paths. The Social Security Administration adopted NFPA 101 as the basis for determining if nursing homes were eligible for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. This provision was in large part a result of Stevens’ work with the congressional committee.
In the same year, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA immediately adopted a number of NFPA standards for use as national consensus standards.
While these two agencies moved to adopt NFPA standards, another was moving to impose federal oversight over the standards system. In response to complaints about potential restraint of trade, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report critical of the U.S. voluntary consensus standards system and recommended FTC oversight.
As a result of challenges to OSHA’s enforcement of NFPA standards, the Department of Labor also requested that NFPA standards contain only mandatory "shall" provisions, not advisory "should" provisions. At the time, they contained both.
In response to these challenges, Stevens concluded that NFPA’s standards-making system, which had remained essentialy unchanged for a half-century, had to be restructured to be more open and inclusive, with greater internal controls and oversight. Advisory provisions were placed in appendices to address OSHA’s concerns. The open proposal and comment procedure, the Standards Council with its oversight and appeals process, and the balanced committee structure were all refinements Stevens implemented.
Eventually, the FTC’s efforts to impose federal oversight faded. Subsequent legal challenges have been largely unsuccessful because of the openness, due process, and procedural fairness of the system Stevens helped develop.
In 1975, Stevens was appointed an assistant vice-president and the Standards Council’s first secretary. He retired in 1984 as vice-president and chief engineer.
Clearly, Richard E. Stevens was the architect of the NFPA consensus codes- and standards-development system as we know it today.
Art Cote, P.E., FSFPE, is NFPA’s former vice-president of Engineering and chef engineer.