State of Independence
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
Protecting our independence as a codes and standards development organization is one of the most important issues we face at NFPA today. There are those who argue that all codes and standards should be classified as public domain material without access to copyright protections. If that argument prevails, it will destroy the independent source of revenue that organizations such as NFPA need to undertake the crucial safety standards development process. Private-sector code developers would be forced to rely more directly on affected interests for financial support, which would undermine their impartiality and independence.
One aspect of private-sector standards development that public officials should better understand is the measure of independence provided by the methods we use to finance our operations. We pay for our technical and administrative staffs, as well as our code-development costs and overhead, by selling codes, standards, and other related documents. We support and underwrite many programs, such as gratis code training for authorities having jurisdiction and our public education activities. We are not funded through charitable contributions or government grants, or by license fees paid by the jurisdictions that use our codes.
More importantly, we are not a trade or industry association. Affected industries are welcome to participate in our process along with enforcers, academics, consumers, and other interested parties, but they do not underwrite the process. Deriving revenues from copyrights protects our independence. No one can influence us by threatening to withhold funds. I doubt that government agencies would feel comfortable for very long relying on a system whose independence has been so compromised. Such a scenario would require jurisdictions to bear more of the burden and cost of code development, lowering the level of standardization we enjoy today.
Anyone who has been involved in the NFPA process knows how much local, state, and federal agencies rely on our codes and standards to protect the public from fire and other hazards. Government officials have confidence in us because we bring together such a broad range of expertise to tackle difficult technical public safety questions, and they know that our process is fair, inclusive, balanced, and transparent. I have attended technical sessions at our annual meetings for 20 years, and I am still struck by the depth of knowledge among those who attend those sessions and their commitment to working through the NFPA system to enhance safety.
The most remarkable aspect of this process is that all of this work, which is done on behalf of the public and enthusiastically adopted by government, takes place under the auspices of a private organization. Long before any notion of “public–private partnership” took root, the idea of public authorities adopting codes and standards developed by private organizations was widely accepted. This system has been in place for more than 100 years because it makes good sense.
At our technical session this year, I will again be reminded of the unique partnership between the private and public sectors that the NFPA process represents and of how much NFPA has done over the years to protect the people of this country and beyond. I will be proud, once again, of our reputation for fairness and impartiality. And, most important, I will think about how critical it is that we do everything we can to protect the system that serves the public so well.