Looking back on 2004: Q&A with James Shannon
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2005
How would you characterize 2004 for our members?
I think 2004 was a very challenging and exciting year in many important areas. For example, we are much more actively involved in the area of homeland security. The passage of the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, which includes a reference to NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, and the 9/11 Commission calling for businesses and others in the private sector to use NFPA 1600 were milestones for us.
We also put a lot of time, effort, and resources into supporting first responders. It’s a sad fact that the threat of terrorism is going to be part of everyone’s life from now on.
How can NFPA help the nation’s private-sector businesses prepare for disaster?
NFPA 1600 gives businesses and other organizations a foundation document for the kind of planning they really should do to protect their employees and customers in the event of a terrorist attack. I’m afraid that a little bit of complacency is setting in as more time passes without a terrorist attack. We must make sure that does not happen, and NFPA 1600 will help us begin the process of thinking about the threat and actively preparing to deal with it.
When the Cook County Administration Building fire occurred last year in Chicago, killing six people, a majority of the people who worked there did not know the evacuation plan for the building, and almost half were unaware that the exit doors would lock behind them when they entered the stairwell. I would like to think that this lack of preparedness is unusual, but we know it isn’t. If terrorists hit another big building, chances are we would find that the occupants have the same lack of vital life-saving information, and, if that happens, we Americans will ask ourselves why, with all the warning we had, we weren’t ready. We at NFPA will increase our activities to encourage building owners and managers to ensure evacuation plans for all buildings.
Our most recent Fire Prevention Week survey showed that such a large number of Americans still underestimate the risk of fire. How can NFPA make people respect fire?
The fact that Americans underestimate the risk of fire does not surprise me. The number of fires has gone down and the number of home fire fatalities has been cut in half in the last 25 years. In an aggregate sense, it seems like less of a danger, but for many parts of the population, it is still a serious risk.
There are very basic things that people can do to improve their chances of escaping from a fire and saving their families’ lives, things like installing smoke alarms and making sure they work. Despite a drastic rise in home smoke alarm use over the last 25 years, nearly one-quarter of the home smoke alarms in reported fires are not working. In fact, 70 percent of all home fire fatalities occur in homes where there are no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
We will also continue to support and do more to advance the use of residential fire sprinklers. The cost has come down and more people are seeing the benefits of residential sprinklers.
Sprinklers can reduce heat, flames, and smoke, often containing or even extinguishing a fire before the fire department arrives at the scene. Smoke alarms and sprinkler systems together reduce fire death rates and property damage.
Cigarettes are still a leading source of home fires. What is NFPA doing to reduce this problem?
Lighted tobacco products led to one out of four fire deaths in the United States in 1999, more than any other cause of fire, and cigarettes are still the leading cause of fatal fires. That such a high percentage of fires are caused by smoking and such a high number of the fire deaths originate with smoking is tragic.
We are aggressively supporting the legislation introduced by Congressmen Edward Markey and Peter King that requires cigarette manufacturers to make self-extinguishing cigarettes. Progress is being made. We have seen states take action, and I think we will see the federal government take action, too. And that will make a significant contribution in bringing down the number of fire deaths.
How did NFPA advocate on behalf of the nation’s firefighters in 2004?
I testified in 2004 before Congress on behalf of NFPA, urging the federal government do more for this country’s first responders. This is the first time in history that the federal government has asked, as an urgent national imperative, that our first responders be prepared to meet an international threat. It’s not realistic to ask fire departments to do more to prepare, train, and equip themselves without giving them the resources. I’ve spoken to dozens of fire chiefs around the country who tell me that they are spending most of their time dealing with this new issue and new threat.
The needs assessment that NFPA did for the United States Fire Administration in 2002 demonstrates how important it is to put more resources into this area. The needs assessment examined the needs and response capabilities of the U.S. fire service. Among the factors examined are personnel and their capabilities; fire prevention and code enforcement; stations, apparatus and equipment; and the ability to handle unusually challenging incidents. Results are reported by nationwide and community size. Using this type of information, we will continue to work to ensure that our fire departments have the financial resources they need.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS] adopted five NFPA standards for personal protective equipment for first responders that will help state and local procurement officials select the best protective equipment available. The standards, the first of their kind to be adopted by DHS, will protect first responders against chemical, biological, and other hazards at emergency incidents.
NFPA began work on many protective clothing and equipment standards for first responders long before the attacks on our nation. More must be done to provide adequate protection for our first responders, but the steps already taken will go a long way in ensuring that it will happen.
How is NFPA working with countries such as China to improve life safety?
The focus of our international efforts is in Latin America and China, and we are making great progress in both of those areas.
In China, we just signed a groundbreaking agreement with the National Technical Committee for Fire Protection Standardization, a committee of the Fire Department of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, to translate 26 NFPA codes and standards into Chinese. We have developed a strong relationship with the Chinese fire service—they know NFPA and respect what we do. This agreement is a very important step in fulfilling our mission internationally.
We have also seen great advancement in our efforts in Latin America, where we see tremendous progress taking place. We have chapters in Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, and last year, we established a chapter in Argentina. We are also working with the Argentinean standards organization (IRAM) and broadening our relationship with them. In general, we are seeing wider use of NFPA codes and standards in Latin America.
How significant is the National Electrical Code® [NEC®] to NFPA’s overall mission?
I think the NEC is at the foundation of NFPA’s mission to save lives and protect property. It is central to our mission and has such a large impact on what we do. Every time there’s a new edition of the NEC, I am so proud of this organization because it is such a great example of what dedicated volunteers can do in protecting lives.
How will the changes to NFPA’s meeting schedule affect members and the codes- and standards-development process?
We went to one meeting a year and changed our regulations in an effort to accommodate the needs of our members and to make their participation in NFPA’s process as efficient and as easy as we can. Life has changed a lot in the last couple of decades, and people find their time stretched thinner and thinner. They just don’t have the time to travel to meetings any more. Going to one meeting is an improvement for a lot of our members, who will not have to choose between the meetings anymore.
What are some of your goals for 2005?
We are going to do what we have always done, which is to read our mission broadly and to remember that, for more than 100 years, NFPA has led the way in saving lives and protecting property from fire and other hazards. In particular, we will spend a lot of time on homeland security. It must be an important part of what we do.
We will also continue to work aggressively to get NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, adopted by additional states and local jurisdictions. And we will make NFPA as accessible as possible to our members so they can participate.