The View From The DHS
How does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with its 22 far-flung agencies, develop a consistent, cohesive approach to standards? DHS’s Bert Coursey talks about the ways NFPA is helping make it happen.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
By Lisa Nadile
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, comprising 22 agencies and about 200,000 employees, is struggling to streamline its operations while fulfilling its mission to prevent the tragedies that arise from terrorism and natural disasters. To accomplish both, the DHS is relying on NFPA’s codes and standards to provide a common voice throughout its Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), which partners with universities, national laboratories, and other organizations to drive technology development that supports homeland security.
Dr. Bert Coursey is deputy director for the Test & Evaluation and Standards Division of the S&T. This division works across DHS to support testing and standards programs within the department and with other federal agencies. Coursey also serves as standards executive for DHS, maintaining communications and consistency in the area of standards, a role required in each U.S. government department. Coursey is on detail from the physics laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he was responsible for the nation’s physical measurements standards for ionizing radiation and radioactivity.
S&T’s—and Coursey’s—goals include improving current standards and developing new ones to support a stronger national infrastructure in the face of today’s risks. A nation adopting a strong slate of codes and standards, while creating technology that operates within them, makes for a national infrastructure resistant to terrorism, Coursey says. Realizing that the private sector, universities, laboratories, and other knowledge bases needed encouragement to develop anti-terrorism products in today’s litigious society, the DHS created the SAFETY (Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies) Act of 2002, which indemnifies certified products.
The SAFETY Act exists to foster innovation in technology and services beneficial to the protection against terrorism, and NFPA’s codes- and standards-development process was one of the first SAFETY Act certifications. Let’s start with an NFPA-DHS success story.
I’ve got a good one: the DHS work with NFPA 1982, which deals with PASS devices, or personal alarm safety systems, that firefighters wear. If a downed firefighter is not moving, the device makes an audible alarm. We at Standards worked with NIST to evaluate the functioning of those PASS systems at high temperatures. We found that they don’t work at high temperatures, which is exactly where a firefighter needs them to work. [Meanwhile,] NFPA issued an alert to firefighters informing them of the deficiencies in the PASS systems and, in 2007, changed NFPA 1982, Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS), to reflect that these devices needed further testing at higher temperatures. That’s a quick example of how the DHS-NFPA collaboration is actually saving lives right now.
How many NFPA standards is DHS using?
DHS has currently adopted 28 NFPA standards, but individual components are certainly using many others that have not been formally adopted.
These are standards that DHS is both using and encouraging others to adopt, right?
Yes. These are the codes and standards that DHS components such as FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection would use, but these documents are also integral to the awarding of financial grants to state and local [organizations] that use DHS grant funds. We specify in the grant application that the equipment should comply with DHS-adopted codes and standards, such as the NFPA codes and standards that have been adopted.
So with this large number of standards, how is DHS working with its components and outside agencies to keep them organized?
Two ways. The first is through the DHS Standards Council, which is composed of a standards representative from each of the major organizations, such as FEMA, the Transportation Safety Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Office Health Affairs, and so forth. That council coordinates the standards activities within the departments, ensuring we don’t have conflicting policies on standards among the major parts of DHS. We don’t want one component working with one standards-development organization and another component working with a different standards organization, resulting in conflicting policies. So we use this council to communicate internally.
The second thing we do, which is equally important, is to coordinate with all the standards-development organizations. We do this through the Homeland Security Standards Panel (HSSP) of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Here, we do the same thing externally that we do internally, which is to have NFPA, IEEE, ASTM, and others communicate what standards-development activities they have under way and how they are complementary. The HSSP has a federal chair, and at the present time this is Gordon Gillerman of NIST, and it has a private sector chair, which is Chris Dubay [vice-president and chief engineer] from NFPA. So NFPA, through the standards work of Bob Vondrasek [vice-president of NFPA’s Technical Projects], is very much involved in all of our standards activities at DHS.
Is DHS using these standards as an organizational framework to develop its programs and meet its goals? Or is it the other way around?
Well, DHS is not a regulatory agency. So we’re not developing our own standards, we’re leveraging those of the private-sector standards organizations through the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act PL 104-113 (1995). Through this public law, we are promoting the use of the voluntary standards rather than develop our own.
Because those standards already exist?
Many of them are already here, but many still need to be developed.
What are some of the areas where you’d like to see standards developed?
There are many areas where we still need additional standards development. In many of those areas, NFPA is already working. In others, ASTM and IEEE are also already working. If you take any technology area, we’re always looking ahead to where the standards need to be. We’re never standing still. There are new technologies being developed, and the standards need to keep track of them. For example, with the PASS devices, a new technology will be to have radio-frequency devices embedded in the PASS device, so if a firefighter is down, there will be an RF signal sent to a receiver to alert. There are two manufacturers that have products like this out there already, so what we’ll need is NFPA 1982 in its next revision to be sure to track the requirements for the RF PASS devices.
Is DHS looking to move toward a UL-like organization, where vendors pay for testing and you list approved products?
No. We’re also not looking to have a sole source for safety testing—fire, shock, and casualty. OSHA has a network of laboratories that are recognized for providing such test services. We do value the efforts of Underwriters Laboratories and we work closely with them, but we are looking to have a comprehensive network of test laboratories that can test both the efficiency and the sustainability for detection and other equipment. We are very interested in the idea of having the manufacturers support the cost of testing and certification by going to third-party test laboratories.
How does this all add up, using these standards? You said you’re indicating product development, you’re identifying best practices, and you’re certifying products.
Yes, all of those things. We look at it as a cycle. The cycle starts with developing user requirements, converting those user requirements into performance specifications, looking at testing protocols, and looking at who also tests equipment to the standard. The next step is to actually perform the test and evaluation, and, finally, certification. So that’s a cycle leading from requirements to acceptable products to certification.
The components will be doing this.
Yes, the DHS components will be doing this. Not the Standards office. Our DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has just announced a complete certification program for radiation detectors that utilize IEEE ANSI standards. We are working with TSA on a similar program for biometrics test equipment.
And currently each component does this independently under the DHS umbrella?
We’re tightening the organization. We’re dealing with 22 legacy agencies that were combined five years ago into a single agency, which is the largest agency in the government, with about 200,000 employees. So it’s too much to think that we immediately would have one consistent way of looking at standards, testing, and evaluation and certification across that entire department. What we can do is begin to develop common processes, common languages, common procedures, so that we’re beginning to function as a single organization rather than as a grouping of individual components.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.