Looking back on 2003: Q&A with James Shannon
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2004
by John Nicholson
Perhaps no one has been closer to the events of 2003 than NFPA's president and CEO, James M. Shannon. Since becoming president in 2002, Shannon has been at the forefront, advocating change and offering NFPA as the catalyst.
James M. Shannon
How would you characterize 2003 for NFPA?
It's been a momentous year. There was just a tremendous number of events at NFPA. For one thing, we had an unusual number of tragedies to address, including the Station fire in West Warwick and the crowd crush at the E2 nightclub in Chicago that happened just a few days before.
We had two devastating nursing home fires take place in Tennessee and Connecticut and, toward the end of the year, the California wildland fires.
We've had to marshal our resources to address all of these issues.
Secondly, we've seen a great milestone achieved with California's adoption of NFPA 5000 and NFPA 1, which is an advance that no one could have imagined a year or two or three ago. This firmly establishes the building code as part of the NFPA family of codes.
We have taken a more aggressive role in advocating change, including calling for all nursing homes to have fire sprinklers.
All of these things have made it quite a year for NFPA.
What are some of the lessons NFPA has learned from the tragedies in 2003?
Unfortunately, it has always been the case that advances in safety tend to come after big tragedies. That was true after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in the early part of the twentieth century. It was true following the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, in the 1940s. We could cite several other examples. The philosophy that NFPA has always lived by is we have to do everything we can when one of these tragedies occurs to learn the lessons and apply them so the tragedies don't happen again.
Was there a response from NFPA in 2003 that you were particularly proud of?
The response after the Station nightclub fire and the Chicago nightclub crowd crush. We called together the Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies and Membrane Structures and had them hear public testimony and begin the process of considering amendments to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, which were adopted very quickly and became part of the code. This is just a great example of how the NFPA system works.
Do you think that happened quicker than expected?
It's very difficult to achieve consensus sometimes, but when there's an urgent need like there was in these cases, our system is flexible enough to respond quickly.
I'm very proud of everybody—our volunteers, of course, who serve on our committees and the Standards Council, and our staff, who had a hand in making sure we addressed these issues expeditiously.
How significant were the California wildland fires to NFPA?
It was a huge event, not only in the history of California, but in the history of fire in America. It was a massive fire that obliterated 800,000 acres, 3,500 homes were destroyed, and 22 people were killed. It also raises some serious questions that NFPA has been examining for a number of years concerning how we live in proximity to our wildlands. There are certain natural phenomena that we aren't going to change and that should be allowed to progress. That is how the ecosystem is kept alive. But there are hazards when people come in more and more numbers to live in or near these wildland areas. Many of these problems can be prevented through education and planning. That's what our Firewise® program and our wildland-fire efforts are aimed at doing.
Is the adoption of NFPA 5000 in California the beginning of other adoptions of the code across the United States?
To have one of the nation's largest states adopt our building code as law is a great testament to the importance of the NFPA process. I was involved with our staff and supporters in California in making the argument for NFPA 5000 before the Building Standards Commission. One of the most persuasive arguments was that the Building Code, like all our other codes, is the product of a consensus process. Another important factor was making the commitment to stay there and work closely through the amendment process with officials in California, to be available to answer their technical questions and provide code books to enforcement officials and training. It's not enough just to issue a code. You must make sure that it's implemented properly, particularly in these times, when jurisdictions are strapped financially. The fact that NFPA can give so much assistance is, I think, one of the things that make the use of our codes so effective.
Can NFPA balance the new demands of homeland security with the traditional goal of protecting home and workplace?
As society has developed, NFPA has faced challenges we couldn't have imagined 100 years or even 20 years ago. Homeland security is a huge challenge, but it's a natural one for NFPA. First, it directly affects the first-responder community, which we work with all the time. We've already been involved in many areas that are of great importance to homeland security.
These include the development of codes and standards that address the deployment of first-responder resources and protective clothing, as well as those detailing how to deal with building collapses and chemical and biological hazards.
Much of the information needed to advance the cause of homeland security includes recommendations NFPA has urged people to follow for years, such as making and practicing evacuation plans for all types of buildings. This is something we have done and urged people to do, but it has taken on a new urgency since September 11, 2001.
Responding to this new situation is going to be an additional challenge for us, as it has been for the first-responder community.
Is NFPA particularly well suited for dealing with homeland security issues?
Many organizations can play an important role, but NFPA is in a position to bring together different elements and different disciplines to look at some of the questions surrounding building safety and evacuation and other aspects of homeland security. That's why we're doing whatever we can to participate in homeland-security preparation efforts.
Can home fire deaths be eliminated?
Some would say it's impossible, but I don't accept that. We've brought down the number of deaths from home fires in this country by 50 percent in the last 25 years. Look at the high percentage of deaths that take place in homes that are unprotected by smoke alarms. Then ask yourself how difficult it would be for every home in America to have a smoke alarm. If we could do that, we'd put a substantial dent in the number of home fire deaths. I think it's a goal we should shoot for. Clearly, we have an unacceptably high rate of home fire deaths in this country, and I think eliminating them is achievable.
NFPA took a step toward this goal last fall when we joined the U.S. Fire Administration and the Mississippi High-Risk Fire Safety Task Force to provide and install nearly 9,000 smoke alarms in homes throughout Holmes County, Mississippi.
The county is one of the poorest areas in the nation and has been hit hard by fire deaths in homes without working smoke alarms. If we can target those very high-risk areas, educate people, and bring basic protection to their homes, I think we can bring that fire rate down substantially and quickly.
How can NFPA members get involved?
The only way it can be done is with the help of our members through community-based programs. Working through local fire departments and civic groups or businesses to establish community-based programs that identify very high-risk areas, we can bring very basic fire protection to these areas that can have a tremendous impact. Members can initiate those programs in their communities.
NFPA's Public Education Department already has the message and the resources. What we need to do now is broaden their application.
Any thoughts on 2004?
I think 2004 is going to be another challenging year. We'll continue to face the demands of homeland security, and our public education efforts will focus more closely on protecting high-risk populations. We'll continue to explore answers to questions involving our movement as a publisher to the digital age. And we'll keep up the momentum we gained in the building-code arena with California's adoption of NFPA 5000.
I think it will be another important year for NFPA, and I'm looking forward to it.