In the mid-1970’s, NFPA staff and board of directors recognized this growing need to provide a resource to better inform the growing body of NFPA codes and standards. In 1982 the NFPA Board approved the formation of the NFPA Research Foundation (now known as the Fire Protection Research Foundation). In order to ensure that research carried out was independent, the Foundation was formed as a separate 501(c) (3) organization. It has given the following mission: To plan, manage and communicate research in support of the NFPA mission.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation: 25 Years On
by Kathleen H. Almand, P.E.
For the past 25 years, the Fire Protection Research Foundation has provided fire- and life-safety research that supports NFPA’s overall mission. From its early days, the Foundation has engaged in major research programs, both domestic and international in scope, designed to provide the type of information that NFPA’s technical committee members and others can use to better support fire safety codes and standards. Each project is guided by a project technical panel that provides technical expertise and user input from sponsors, the research community, the fire service, NFPA technical committees, and other stakeholders.
Here is a look back at some of the highlights of the Foundation’s projects over the past 25 years through the eyes of some of its key contributors.
During the 1980’s, the world was confronted with the predicted perils of depleting the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer. At that time, both NFPA and the Foundation became directly involved, on behalf of the fire protection community, in helping make the transition from environmentally harmful chemicals used for fire protection to more environmentally friendly replacements.
In addition to holding symposia and forums all over the world and publishing numerous articles on the subject, the Foundation and NFPA took other constructive steps. Specifically, the Foundation produced an report that shed light on the wasteful full-scale field testing of Halon 1301 fire suppression systems. This was published in 1988 as Halon 1301 Discharge Testing: A Technical Analysis.
Two additional reports followed in 1989, one of which was a follow-up to the first report. This new report, Enclosure Integrity Procedure for Halon 1301 and Total Flooding Systems, provided a method for testing enclosures without using a full-scale dump test. The proposed procedure became a new Appendix of NFPA 12A, Halon 1301 Fire Extinguishing Systems, and was subsequently included in NFPA 2001, Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems. It still serves today as a classic example of the way research results are used in NFPA’s codes- and standards-development process.
The Foundation issued a third report, Best and Essential Use: A Methodology, in 1989, which the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) used in the updates to the Montréal Protocol that would soon follow. Thus, this particular Foundation report had a far-reaching affect on the fire safety world we know today.
Fire risk assessment
From the beginning, the Foundation has recognized the value to NFPA codes- and standards-development committees—and to fire protection engineering decision-making generally—of developing fire risk assessment as a language and a set of tools. Two major projects best illustrate this long-time focus.
During the latter half of the 1980s, the Foundation sponsored a joint project by NIST, NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, and Benjamin-Clarke Associates to develop a generic fire risk assessment package for evaluating alternative products, according to John R. Hall, assistant vice-president of the Fire Analysis and Research Division.
The motivation for the project was to move away from the then-active push to evaluate products solely on the basis of their combustion toxic potency.
The model developed during the project, which would be named Fire Risk Assessment Method, or FRAMEworks, combined a fire scenario and a behavioral scenario structure with associated probabilities, a zone model for fire development and smoke spread, a smoke alarm activation model, and a toxic impact model.
The second project developed a fire risk assessment framework to evaluate fire protection alternatives for big box retail and storage facilities in which large quantities of flammable or combustible liquids were stored in consumer-ready containers. Sprinklers of various designs could be compared to innovative packaging design, floor drains, and other strategic approaches.
More recently, the Foundation, through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, has developed a guide for NFPA Committees on Incorporating Risk Concepts in NFPA Codes and Standards.
Fire sprinkler technology
The Foundation has also made many significant contributions to the understanding of fire sprinkler technology, perhaps the most significant of which was the Quick Response Sprinkler Research Project. The project, begun in May 1984, was aimed at developing and introducing fast response sprinkler technology into codes and standards.
The project was divided into two parts, one focusing on early suppression, fast response (ESFR) sprinklers for high-challenge fires and the other on applying this new technology to sprinklers intended for a broad range of occupancies between residential and industrial. This type of sprinkler is now known as the quick response (QR) sprinkler.
According to National Fire Sprinkler Association Executive Vice-President Russ Fleming, P.E., who was a technical advisor to the projects, a number of fundamental decisions were made at that time, such as the decision to define fast response as an attribute of the sprinkler hardware rather than the installed condition.
The groundwork the Foundation laid has proven so solid that more than 70 percent of the 50 million sprinklers installed last year in the United States and Canada were fast response sprinklers.
Fire detection and alarm systems
In 1990, the Foundation, in collaboration with the Fire Detection Institute, awarded the International Fire Detection Research Project to the Building and Fire Research Laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
This seven-year project looked at three key issues using early versions of computational fluid dynamic modeling to determine the effects of flat, beamed ceilings on detector and sprinkler response, the effects of sloped ceilings, and the effects of HVAC-induced air flow from slot and various diffusers on smoke detector response.
The research was the impetus for the first changes made to the application of smoke detectors in beamed ceilings and confirmed the dead air space that had been in the code for some time.
The research also showed the need to evaluate HVAC systems based on the types of venting used for performance-based smoke detector applications but did not provide prescriptive changes to the code.
The Foundation continues this work through modeling and validation studies of various aspects of detection system design.
Today’s research needs
Today’s codes and standards environment is evolving and the research needed to underpin it is changing with it. NFPA committees are facing a number of current issues, among them the application of new technologies and applications.
It has always been a challenge to address the introduction of new technology in existing codes and standards. Prescriptive provisions are naturally written around existing products, and technology developers often don’t know where to start trying to get their innovations recognized. The Foundation provides an independent resource for the “code road mapping” of new fire technology as well as an effective means of identifying the performance criteria against which such technology will be evaluated.
Many new developments in fire technology have themselves arisen from an innovative response to regulatory restrictions. Take, for example, halons and halon alternatives. The Foundation’s early work provided a vehicle for accepting new and existing technologies by enabling the development and acceptance of relevant performance information.
The last decade has seen a movement towards the development of performance-based codes and standards, which allow the designer to satisfy the fire-safety objectives of the document using a performance-approach. Traditionally, most NFPA prescriptive codes and standards have permitted alternative materials and methods, provided the designer could justify equivalency. Both prescriptive and performance-based provisions call for the development of technical information to substantiate deviations from prescriptive code requirements. This need dictates a more strategic approach to the development of data, which will inform design decisions over a range of scenarios.
Each of these examples shows how the Fire Protection Research Foundation can inform a codes- and standards-development issue with critical applied research results.
Today, the Research Foundation is responding to current challenges with activities in a number of areas, including detection and signaling, hazardous materials, electrical safety, fire suppression, storage of commodities, and firefighter protective clothing and equipment.
Most recently, the Foundation posted all of its research reports online. This is an important step in helping to make the results of these research projects available to all who are able to utilize this information.
As the Foundation marks its anniversary, its future will remain linked to its projects and reports, and the impact they have on tomorrow’s codes and standards. The next 25 years will bring new challenges to the fire safety regulatory framework.
“We welcome the opportunity to meet them,” Almand says.
Acknowledgements:Thanks to Foundation staff members Kathleen Almand and Casey Grant, and to John Hall, Russ Fleming, Wayne Moore and Dick Gann for their past and present contributions to the Foundation and input in preparing this article.