Making the Connection
NFPA standards and firefighter safety research
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2010
In the March/April 2009 issue of NFPA Journal, Casey Grant reported on the renaissance of research on firefighter safety and health in the United States. Research funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other sources is part of an on-going process that promises important improvements in firefighting equipment, fire ground tactics, and firefighter safety and health. The scale of the research effort is growing: in 2007, the latest year for which data is available, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Fire Prevention and Safety Grants program provided $11.4 million in research grants on this topic. Other agencies, such as NIOSH's National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory and NIST's Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL), also have significant research programs underway to improve the safety and health of firefighters.
The outcome of this research is beginning to be felt across the fire safety community. Because NFPA codes and standards often serve as the means of deploying research, NFPA Technical Committees on Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health and Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment (PPE) are on the front lines of this effort. It’s an exciting but difficult time, as committees come to grips with the performance criteria for new technologies and consider new information about safety hazards.
Since May 2008, the Foundation has met with the Technical Correlating Committee for PPE to hear their concerns and determine how we might be able to assist. The result is a robust conversation on research needed to develop a framework to integrate this research into NFPA standards. At the top of the list are three major items: the need to develop performance criteria for new technologies and equipment; the need to evaluate the performance of protective clothing and equipment in use; and the need to characterize the fire and chemical environment encountered by today’s fire service in various situations, with a focus toward improving the design and use of equipment. In the upcoming months, we hope to extend this dialogue to the other major NFPA technical committees focused on fire service occupational safety and health.
The Foundation continues to promote this agenda in the research community, within both research organizations and granting agencies, to encourage them to set priorities for efforts in these areas and to offer to serve as the bridge between new developments and NFPA standards. The near-term result has been the Foundation’s involvement in five major research programs to help ensure that they provide relevant information for technical committees. One, carried out in collaboration with NIST’s BFRL on tactics for wind-driven firefighting, has resulted in a better understanding of this phenomenon to develop training information for the fire service. Two others, carried out in collaboration with North Carolina State University, are developing test methods to evaluate the thermal performance of clothing and firefighting gloves. The final two programs, carried out in collaboration with the University of Arizona, focus on identifying the risk factors for firefighter cardiovascular disease and benchmarking the health and safety of U.S. emergency responders against those from other countries to evaluate causes and best practices.
In each project, the Foundation’s role has been to connect the research to the needs of the fire service and NFPA standards by facilitating their oversight and participation and by broadly disseminating the results.
We encourage the research community to consider how their work can be implemented through NFPA codes and standards, and we are ready to help in any way we can. We hope the long-term result of this activity will be a broader understanding that research focused on the needs of the fire service, and connected to them through active engagement, will have a much greater impact on firefighter health and safety.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E. , FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.