Beyond the Tried & True
Emerging problems that require an out-of-the-box approach to research
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
When I first joined the Research Foundation in 2004, one of the major roles I thought we could play in support of NFPA codes and standards was that of a technology enabler. That is, that we could provide direction for developers of fire and life safety technology that would help them learn the framework of our codes and standards, and assist them with the data they would need for the integration of their products into the fire safety marketplace. It seemed like a simple mapping project to me: here are the standards provisions that impact the technology, and here are the data you need to determine if and how you meet those requirements or their equivalents.
But that model doesn’t work for everything. We’re increasingly faced with problems that require an out-of-the-box approach to research, an approach that can creatively and constructively challenge some of the fundamental assumptions behind our codes and standards.
This was brought home again to me at the Foundation’s Suppression, Detection and Signaling Research and Applications conference, or SUPDET, held recently in Orlando. The conference included a workshop session to try to better define the term “equivalency” in the context of water mist alternatives to sprinkler systems. While water mist is not a new technology and has been used successfully in many specialized applications, NFPA sprinkler technical committees have rejected the notion that mist systems are equivalent or even an alternative to sprinkler systems. For most of the members of those committees, it would be a sizable leap to think that 100 years of research and field experience with sprinklers could translate readily to mist, even with test data to show equivalent performance in certain scenarios.
In our workshop, we started with a basic question about the performance goals of the relevant standard, NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems: Is the goal suppression, control of fire, or both? We discussed implicit performance assumptions that have been part of the development of NFPA 13 since it was first introduced in 1896. What about obstructions? Combustible concealed spaces? The influence of enclosure on performance? What about performance over time? The topics were large and far-ranging, and our discussion held the beginnings of a definition of equivalent performance — a combination of both scenario-specific and broader performance issues, as well as an understanding of how fire suppression systems fit into the overall picture of fire safety design in buildings. The discussion also contained the seeds of an out-of-the-box research approach that the water mist community might use to find the right place for this technology in fire safety applications and NFPA codes and standards.
This kind of process can yield other valuable results, too. Attempts to fully articulate the performance goals and objectives of our standards can lead us to a deeper understanding of the implicit assumptions embedded in those standards and even help us challenge some of those assumptions. The Foundation has a few projects in the pipeline, including one on the fire safety challenges of high-rise timber-framed buildings, where devising research strategies to meet performance goals will require a close look at some of those fundamental code assumptions. This is an evolution, rather than a revolution, in how we approach research at the Foundation, and it is truly a new and exciting model that will help emerging technologies find their place in NFPA standards.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.