When Process Meets Commitment
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
When I first came to work at NFPA more than 18 years ago, I arrived with no experience in standards development and, candidly, only a rudimentary understanding that government and industry relied on a private system to determine appropriate minimum safety requirements. In those early days of my NFPA career, I set out to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could, because as NFPA General Counsel I was expected to provide legal advice to our Standards Council and staff.
I started my education in standards development by asking questions of our staff. All of the staff, especially Art Cote, who was then our chief engineer, were generous with their time and patient with me as I began to learn about the NFPA standards-development system. When I learned that we had about 300 documents that incorporated the work of 7,000 technical committee members, I wondered why so many people would volunteer so much valuable time and how the work of those volunteers could ever be efficiently channeled in our system. When I learned that the process was open to anyone who wanted to participate and that our system had multiple opportunities for interested parties to make their case for amendments to our documents, I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical that we could process so many documents of substance and complexity on the regular revision schedules.
As the months passed and I worked with our staff, attended my first technical committee and Standards Council meetings, and sat through my first technical session at our Annual Meeting, I began to understand the unique role played by NFPA and other organizations that develop safety standards in a consensus process. People who rely on our standards and codes, including governments that adopt them into law, can be confident that the rules under which they are developed are fair and open, that decisions are based on technical merits, and that no interest can dominate the process to serve its own purposes. We work hard to attract the best people to our process and to make sure that our rules are followed, because everything we do depends upon our reputation as an honest, unbiased steward of the process.
But I also concluded that having a strong and well-managed process, with all the necessary protections scrupulously enforced, is just part of the answer to the question of why NFPA has been such a force in fire and electrical safety for so long. The other part is the enthusiasm and commitment of those who participate in our process. When you have seen a few cycles of the National Electrical Code® or the Life Safety Code®, or if you have had the chance to spend some time with technical committee members who work on the sprinkler codes or the National Fire Alarm Code®, you must have been struck, as I have been over and over again, by the enthusiasm and commitment of the people who participate in our process.
For them, involvement with NFPA is not a job: it is a cause. They might have gotten into the process for professional reasons, but for the overwhelming majority of our participants, the process and the way it enhances safety for millions of people worldwide have become important reasons for their continued participation. The enthusiasm that I saw in the staff when I first came to NFPA, and that I still see every day, is the same enthusiasm I see whenever I speak with our volunteers.
I believe that the United States standards-development process, in bringing together so many diverse interests and so much technical expertise in the effort to reach consensus, is the best standards system in the world, and I am proud to say that there is no better example of that system at its best than NFPA’s.