JIM SHANNON JOINED NFPA as vice president and general counsel in 1991, the same year the newly invented World Wide Web went public. He retired as NFPA president in June, having presided for 12 years over what was arguably the most dynamic period of change, fueled by the ongoing Internet revolution, in the organization’s history.
When Shannon arrived at NFPA, “web” users tended to be scientists or researchers, like the enterprising group in Switzerland that figured out how to link a video feed of the office coffee maker to their computers so they knew when a fresh pot was ready. By 1995, though, the web was no longer the domain of over-caffeinated scientists, numbering about 16 million global users. That year, NFPA launched its first website, nfpa.org, which consisted primarily of features from NFPA Journal, articles from the technical journal Fire Tech, and a calendar.
By the time Shannon succeeded George Miller to become the sixth president of NFPA, in 2002, the nfpa.org site had undergone two major redesigns, added thousands of individual content pages, and created an array of specialty sites under the NFPA umbrella. At Shannon’s urging, NFPA announced it would put NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 5000, Building Code, online in a read-only format, allowing the public free access to the codes. A scant decade after its debut, the World Wide Web had exploded, with an estimated 600 million global users, or just under 10 percent of the world’s population.
Watch a video conversation with Jim Shannon on important moments and key initiatives during his 12 years as NFPA president.
Today, NFPA’s online presence is vast and vigorous, with tens of thousands of web pages devoted to codes and standards development, advocacy initiatives, training, research, blogs, and more, supported by a comprehensive social media effort. All of NFPA’s more than 280 codes and standards have been available to the public in read-only format since 2005. The total number of visits to all NFPA online properties is predicted at around 10 million in 2014. Around the world, the number of web users is estimated at about 3 billion, or some 40 percent of the planet’s inhabitants.
Shannon’s presidency is inextricable from the ascendancy of the Internet, just as NFPA’s growth over the past two decades would not have been possible without it. “We must not look at technology as a threat, but as an opportunity to do more to fulfill our mission,” he told members in his first speech as president, in Atlanta in the fall of 2002, and it’s fair to say that Shannon and the organization have delivered on that imperative. As NFPA’s “digital president,” Shannon marshaled an intuitive grasp of the power of technology and championed its use in nearly every aspect of NFPA involvement, from advocacy to international outreach to the process of standards development itself.
“We were publishers coming out of a paper-first world, and it took a leader to get us to recognize that we were content providers, not just creators of pages in a book,” said Maureen Brodoff, vice president and general counsel at NFPA, who Shannon hired as associate general counsel in 1991. “Free access to standards, the ability to purchase and immediately download standards and related materials, so many things—Jim encouraged all of those early on.”
Even with two decades of progress behind him, Shannon insists there is potential for much more. “This is just the start,” he said in a recent interview with NFPA Journal. “Technology is evolving, and we can use it to further expand the influence of NFPA. I think it’s going to be a golden age for NFPA to be a force for safety, not just in North America, but globally.”
The almost effortless process of delivering, consuming, and sharing information on the Internet has led some advocates, under the the slogan “information wants to be free,” to argue that authors and publishers should not be able to derive revenues from the sale of their works. “This view forgets that creating quality content is far from effortless and requires expertise, time, and great cost,” Shannon said. “Enabling the creation of important socially beneficial content was so important to the nation’s founders that they included copyright protections for authors in U.S. Constitution as an incentive to spur and support the creation of such works.”
Authors and content creators of all kinds, from media to music, have struggled with this new copyright-averse dynamic, sometimes with catastrophic results, and non-profit standards developers who rely on copyright to fund their activities face similar concerns. “[We all] share this interest in protecting intellectual property rights,” Shannon told NFPA Journal in 2002. “I’m committed to the idea that NFPA not get caught flatfooted.”
Shannon saw the Internet as an ideal means of making NFPA standards available to the public. With the posting of NFPA 1 and NFPA 5000 in 2002, NFPA became the first standards developer to provide free, read-only access to its documents online. “We believe that delivery of our information in the variety of ways made possible by the Internet, including free online access for those who simply want to ready our standards without purchasing their own copy, is this a great way to accomplish our mission,” he said. By coming to NFPA’s website, he said, anyone can read authoritative versions of NFPA standards and sign up for automatic updates. If they want to own their own copy, they can purchase and download NFPA standards instantly. “Plus, when people come to our website to access our standards, they can learn about all the other safety information and education we provide, some of it for purchase, much of it for free,” Shannon added. “Our ability to develop and disseminate our safety standards and other information in this way depends on the funding source made possible by the copyrights in our standards.”
The critique of those who don’t believe there is a place for copyright protection in the digital world emerged just as Shannon began his tenure at NFPA. It intensified in 2008 when an organization called Public Resource began the unauthorized copying and uploading of copyrighted standards developed by NFPA and other private-sector standards development organizations. The group claims it has the right to engage in unlimited copying and distribution of any standard whenever a city, town, or other governmental jurisdiction references the standard in an ordinance, regulation, or other law.
Jim Shannon, pictured with incoming NFPA president Jim Pauley, adopted a proactive approach to the brave new world presented by the Internet.
PHOTO: Mark Ostow
Describing the practice as “massive copyright infringement,” NFPA, along with ASTM International and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers, filed a lawsuit last August in federal court to stop Public Resource from copying and uploading the documents. The lawsuit is intended to prevent “the flagrant violation of our copyrights and the undermining of the enormously effective process of developing consensus codes and standards that over the past century has made all of our homes and workplaces safer,” wrote Lorraine Carli, vice president for Advocacy and Outreach at NFPA, on the NFPA Today blog. “The standards development system that has evolved in the U.S. for over 100 years provides enormous public benefits that could not be replicated by governmental bodies without tremendous expense and needless chaos and confusion. Standards development is the original public/private partnership—and it works.” A judge is expected to rule on the case sometime next year.
“This is the biggest threat to ever face NFPA,” Shannon said. “Our system for private-sector standards development is independent—it takes the burden off taxpayers, and no single interest dominates. We fund that process through the copyright-protected sales and licensing of our standards, but if we lose that ability, the standards development process will have to be undertaken by government agencies bureaucratically, or by industries that will essentially be writing their own safety regulations without input from other stakeholders—neither of those is a good solution.”
Joe Bhatia, president and CEO of the American National Standards Institute, the accrediting organization for standards developers, when asked about the copyright threat, launched into a long, impassioned argument that mirrored Shannon’s. “I get kind of emotional when I talk about this,” he said. “There’s so much at stake here, and Jim and NFPA have been phenomenal leaders.” He paused, then added, “I hope for the sake of the system, our constituents, and the country that we don’t mess this up.”
Shannon has spoken often of the need to be “good stewards” of NFPA—“Our view for the past decade or more has been to build this institution so that it will be around in perpetuity to do the work people rely on us to do”—and his background in public service was ideal preparation for that task. A native of Massachusetts, Shannon served three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1979 to 1985, as part of the state’s powerful Democratic Congressional delegation. He became Massachusetts Attorney General in 1987, and won a reputation as a consumer and civil rights advocate. “Jim brought a return to advocacy at NFPA,” said Art Cote, who retired as chief engineer in 2006 after 29 years at NFPA. “This used to be a very advocacy-oriented organization, but we’d gotten away from that. Jim brought it back in the form of the fire safe cigarette and home fire sprinkler campaigns, and other efforts.” NFPA recently created an advocacy award in Shannon’s name, and named him the first recipient at the organization’s annual conference in June.
The Internet was a key tool in promoting legislation nationwide requiring that all cigarettes sold be “self-extinguishing” to reduce the threat of cigarette-related fires. The campaign was launched in 2006, and in 2010, Wyoming became the 50th state to adopt the legislation. “This is one of the greatest successes in NFPA history,” Shannon said. “We thought it would take a decade or more. It’s already had a big impact on fire fatalities—our latest analysis is that smoking-related fire fatalities in this country have been reduced by about 30 percent because of that one change. That’s thousands of lives saved, many more injuries prevented, and many firefighters not put at risk.” Similar goals form the foundation of the Internet-based Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which promotes the installation of home fire sprinklers at the local and state levels.
Shannon credited the cooperation of the fire service for the success of NFPA’s recent advocacy initiatives. “They’ve been terrific partners in these efforts,” he said. “One of the things I wanted to do as president was to strengthen our relationship with firefighters across the country and around the world, and to make the job of being a firefighter safer. I think we’ve made some positive strides.”
Chief Ernest Mitchell, the United States Fire Administrator, described NFPA under Shannon as a “connected partner with the fire service” and cited the fire service needs assessments conducted by NFPA as valuable tools in improving firefighter safety. “They gave us a much clearer picture of the gaps in fire and emergency service capabilities, and they helped us show in a measurable way that the Assistance to Firefighter Grant program was in fact helping to improve performance in areas like training and protective gear,” Mitchell said. He also praised Shannon’s move to put NFPA codes online, describing it as a “tremendous help” for smaller fire departments.
Shannon also leveraged the Internet to build NFPA’s international presence, which extends from Latin America to the Middle East to China. “Technology has given us the opportunity to get NFPA’s message and mission to more places than we ever could have dreamed of,” he said. Following a devastating nightclub fire last year in Brazil, for example, fire and safety officials in the country, as well as media, visited nfpa.org for information on nightclub fires, specifically the 2003 Station nightclub fire and NFPA’s response to that event. Shannon and members of NFPA’s engineering staff did Skype interviews with Brazilian media, and soon fire officials were in touch with NFPA seeking assistance with their fire codes. The state of Rio de Janeiro is preparing to adopt NFPA 1, and NFPA staffers are working with legislatures and fire departments throughout the country to bring other NFPA codes and standards to Brazil. “We’re very pleased to be working with Brazil on these important safety issues,” Shannon said. “It’s a great way for us to expand our mission, but it would not have been possible without the technology we have available today.”
NFPA’s evolving “digital-first” strategy, championed by Shannon, also drove the recent revamping of the code process. As Chris Dubay, NFPA vice president and chief engineer, put it, the vision was to utilize the Internet to “create a process and platform that would encourage more people to participate, make it easier for technical committees and the public to review and comment on NFPA standards, and provide a more transparent process that was clearer and more open to everyone.”
The project was launched in 2011 and culminated with the most recent Association Technical Meeting in June. The new process helped add more than 2,000 new technical committee members, increased the monthly views on the “Next Edition” tabs at the document information web pages by more than 15,000, and resulted in more standards published earlier than ever before.
Shannon noted the new process in his speech at the annual conference in Chicago in 2013, then segued to a host of additional digital initiatives: a bevy of new apps, online training tools, web-based public education programs, advocacy materials, even the rollout of a mobile site for Sparky the Fire Dog®. “Our future is unlimited,” he said.
As it turns out, Shannon himself isn’t much of a techie—he doesn’t spend much, if any, time browsing apps, Tweeting, or updating his Facebook profile. (He doesn’t have one.) As Brodoff put it, for Shannon “computers are just instruments for getting things done.”
She should know. Brodoff has worked with Shannon for 25 years, longer than anyone else at NFPA, starting back in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in 1989. She, too, noted Shannon’s intuitive grasp of the emerging digital world and what it could mean for NFPA, but she said his greatest talent was a much more human one. “There are plenty of people out there who share Jim’s intelligence and judgment, but there are few who combine those qualities with a genuine interest in people and their lives,” she said. “When I first met him, I was struck by his astounding memory for people—their names, what they did, where they were from—and I chalked it up to a politician’s trick. But then I came to work for him at NFPA and got to know him better, and it became apparent that he had this real curiosity about and respect for people. I think that says everything you need to know about Jim.”
Almost. He seemed to be only half kidding when he said it was “no coincidence” that his beloved Boston Red Sox had won three World Series during his tenure as NFPA president. At 62, he’s looking forward to spending more quality time with the Sox, as well as with his wife, Silvia, at the couple’s weekend place in the mountains of New Hampshire. “I’ve had a career that in many respects has been very exciting,” he said, “but more important is that I’ve loved working with the people I’ve worked with. I’ve been blessed to be able to work with people who cared very deeply not just about advancing their careers, but about changing the world for the better. And I’ve worked with no better group of people than the ones here at NFPA.”