NFPA’s Message for Obama
Jim Shannon, NFPA president, on the key fire and life safety issues that need to be addressed by the incoming Obama Administration.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
By Scott Sutherland, executive editor
I recently sat down with Jim Shannon and asked him a very large question: from the NFPA’s perspective, what are the fire and life safety issues that the incoming Obama Administration needs to keep at the top of its to-do list? And it’s a long list: profound economic upheaval at home and abroad, a pair of distant wars, and a growing call to address the planet’s environmental crisis promise to claim much of the administration’s time and resources. But there are issues closer to home, and closer to the hearts of NFPA members, that the administration and its related agencies need to make room for. The edited excerpts below are from my conversation with Jim.
— Scott Sutherland, executive editor
From an NFPA perspective, what are the most important things this administration needs to consider?
Obviously we are in the middle of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and that has reordered all the priorities in just a few short weeks. We are talking about saving financial institutions and saving the auto industry and stimulating the economy. One of the concerns I’ve got is that in the effort to address these huge issues, we not lose focus on some of the things we’ve been working on for the last several years.
One example is our efforts to get more resources to emergency responders in the United States. NFPA was involved in two needs assessments surveys for the U.S. fire service and emergency responders. We found that, by and large, fire departments across America just don’t have the resources, the training, and the staffing necessary to deal with a large disaster, whether it’s a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. We’ve been working very hard over the last few years—and by we, I mean NFPA and the whole fire service and emergency response community—to try to address that problem. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program has been one way we’ve addressed that problem. Unfortunately, not enough progress has been made. We’re more than seven years after 9/11, and I don’t feel comfortable that fire departments and emergency responders have nearly the kind of assistance that they need to deal with another disaster. It’s my hope that in these shifting budget priorities that we not lose focus on that problem, and that we continue to support this program.
Where does NFPA 1600, which deals with disaster and emergency management issues, as well as business continuity, come into this?
We’ve urged private organizations to prepare for natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and I hope this administration would consider a major public education effort to try to get private organizations to take on the responsibility for emergency planning. Government can do a lot, but if you have a disaster, it’s the private sector preparations [that are key to managing the impact of the disaster]. We saw that on 9/11—a horrible disaster, the worst day in U.S. history. But it could have been far worse if many of the organizations in the World Trade Center had not prepared. They happened to be located in a place that had been a target of a terrorist attack before. So a lot of those organizations had done a pretty good job of preparing. A lot of changes had been made in that building that made it far safer than it had been before. As a result, we lost almost 3,000 people, but I think it could have been much worse. We need to see every building and every organization do that kind of preparation. We’ve seen some progress on the problem, but not enough. I hope it’ll be a priority for the Obama Administration.
You’ve also identified fire protection and alternative energy as a key issue.
The fire protection implications of alternative energy sources will continue to be a major concern for NFPA and for the Fire Protection Research Foundation. We’ve already had some involvement in projects with the Department of Energy around the “hydrogen highway.” If you think about it, if you have hydrogen cars, if you have cars with big electric batteries, and all of a sudden you’ve got them on the roads, they’re going to start getting into accidents, and people are going to have to respond to those accidents. So the training and the equipment, and the understanding of these technologies, really has to be a focus of our efforts, so that firefighters are safe and occupants of vehicles that use these alternative energy sources are safe.
I would include the whole range of energy sources here—[liquid natural gas] is another obvious area—where we pay very close attention to the fire protection implications. A lot of work has been done in that area, and I think the technical means to make most of these technologies safe is available. But how do you get that information to the people who need to respond to problems? I think we need to work with the fire service to find out exactly what they know—what is their level of understanding of the technologies that they are soon going to have to address?—and devise plans and means for training, for equipment, for dealing with those technical issues that are going to come about as these new energy resources come online.
How hopeful are you, based on what you’ve seen so far, that the incoming administration will be responsive to these issues?
So far, I am very hopeful because of the quality of the appointments. One of the problems that has sometimes occurred is that the agencies we deal with have not gotten the attention they needed. There has been a history, for instance, with an agency like [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. FEMA is very important to the nation and to the people with whom we work every single day. We’ve got very good leadership there now in Dave Paulison. What I am very happy about so far with the Obama Administration, as it’s shaping up, is the quality of the people who have been appointed. They are serious people, they are experienced people, and they understand the severity of the problems. As we go down through the next level of appointments, if we see the same sort of approach, I think that’s going to bode very well for the issues that we are concerned with. I have to say that the current people we deal with, with FEMA, with the United States Fire Administration under Greg Cade, and other agencies have been very good. I hope that continues from day one in the Obama Administration and I expect that it will.