Should Codes + Standards Be Taught?
Education, a changing profession, and the evolution of standards
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
In June, I traveled to Scotland to participate in a seminar at the University of Edinburgh on the topic of university curricula for fire safety engineering. The event was motivated by the need for a new generation of leaders that can guide the profession through the significant transition it is currently experiencing, one that is increasingly characterized by a performance-based design environment coupled with some level of risk analysis. I was asked to share my perspective on the role of codes and standards in the education of fire safety engineers. My central question was this: As the profession develops capable design tools based on a modern understanding of the relationship between buildings, their occupants and contents, and fire safety, is the teaching of codes and standards redundant or out of date?
It’s an interesting time to examine this topic. This year, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers published its first engineering design standard on calculating fire exposures to structures, a major milestone in establishing the building blocks of the profession. It is also the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Waist Co. fire, which provided the impetus for the early development of what would become NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, as well as a host of basic fire safety principles that have become integral to modern codes and standards. How does the legacy of fire safety principles inherent in prescriptive codes and standards enable an increasingly capable fire safety engineering profession?
A look at the Foundation’s research portfolio is part of NFPA’s answer to that question. Each year, NFPA technical committees come to us seeking answers to technical issues they’re grappling with. A few examples illustrate the emergence of engineering in its various forms in code development.
The Foundation is conducting a project for the alarm industry to develop performance criteria for emerging light sources for emergency notification appliances; with a quantified understanding of performance, engineers can more easily integrate these systems into fire safety design for egress. Another project examined the hazards associated with the storage of lithium ion batteries so that engineers can develop appropriate protection strategies for this hazard in warehouses. Finally, the Foundation recently completed a project to develop a hazard assessment tool to evaluate whether conditions in a space constitute a dust hazard.
Each of these projects illustrates different means by which engineers can integrate codes and standards and available engineering methods to meet fire-safety objectives. Engineering curricula, including the teaching of codes and standards, can and should reflect this integration.
A large question remains, however: Can we continue to rely on an incremental approach to changing codes to enable the future of fire protection engineering? This question goes to the heart of a host of emerging fire safety challenges: ultra-high storage configurations in warehouses, which were never envisioned in the development of our current code framework; test methods for evaluating fire protection technology that are prescriptively based on old technology principles; societal issues such as sustainability and health and their interface with fire safety; and the aging of our fire safety infrastructure, to name a few. These challenges may demand more of a revolution in codes and standards development, perhaps even a new structure permitting a more explicit consideration of hazard and risk over a building’s life cycle.
Whether codes change through evolution or revolution, they remain the basis for regulatory acceptance of fire safety design—and a critical component of the education of the fire safety engineers of tomorrow.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.