James M. Shannon, NFPA President
Remarks at NFPA's 2013 Conference & Expo, Chicago, IL

A couple of months ago, I was watching a movie that was made back in the 80s. In the middle of the movie, I started to realize how strange things were back then. People sent letters to each other! If you had kids you could spend a whole day, from breakfast to dinner, without hearing anything from them...not a single text message or tweet! Some people had assistants who sat at desks, answered the phone and wrote messages on little slips of pink paper. Those assistants had typewriters on their desks. Anybody here under the age of 30 can come up after this session, and I will explain to you what a typewriter was. 

That movie got me thinking about when I had sent my first e-mail to somebody outside of my own place of work. I could not quite pin down the date but I think it was sometime in 1994. That is probably not as early as some of you but roughly around the time when most of you began to use the internet. And you are probably like me. Today, less than 20 years later, I cannot imagine how I functioned in those pre-internet days.

We have become accustomed to getting answers to questions right away. We communicate all day with our co-workers, colleagues in other places, our families, our friends. We are connected all day, every day. If I could not get my e-mail and check all of the regular internet sites I use to pay my bills, to make my appointments, to manage my finances and to stay in touch with friends, family and professional associates, my life would come screeching to a halt. I bet most of you feel the same way. We have structured our lives, both professional and personal, around a technology that we knew almost nothing about a couple of decades ago.

When the internet first emerged, some thought it would be a flash in the pan. Today, according to the Gallup poll, about 80 percent of people in the United States and about 1/3 worldwide, have access to the internet in their homes. 

Thanks to all of these connections, this is a completely different world than it was then. It has changed our lives in ways that even the most visionary among us could not have predicted. And these changes have happened more quickly than any of us could have imagined.

And while we complain that we do not get to disconnect the way we used to when we go home from work or go away on vacation, all of the advancements in communication technology have already made life better for billions of people around the world. And this is just the beginning of our exploration of how we can use these tools to improve, health, safety and education for everyone.

Think about what these changes mean for an organization like NFPA. We have a vital mission to make the world safer and every single thing we do to fulfill that mission is information based.

Our codes and standards, our professional training, our public education programs, our advocacy campaigns are all based on the belief that if we can get the right safety information to the right people we can save lives, prevent injuries and protect property from fire and electrical hazards.

Individuals, governmental entities and businesses rely on us. That means we have an obligation to manage the finances of NFPA in such a way that we can continue doing our important work in perpetuity. We take that obligation very seriously. We spend our money carefully, and we are strong financially. I have spoken to you before about the measures we have taken to make sure that this new technological world does not do to us what it has done to the newspaper industry, book publishers and the recording industry.

We take the threat to our copyrights seriously because just about everything we do is funded by the revenues generated when people buy our standards and codes and the products derived from them. This system of relying on private standards developers like NFPA to protect public safety has worked very well over the last century. But, it will not survive if the court or the legislatures remove copyright protection from codes and standards. Along with several other standards developing organizations we are taking the necessary steps to protect that system.

But we also have an obligation to use our resources creatively and aggressively to find new ways to reach people to advance NFPA’s mission. These next years will be the most exciting time in NFPA’s history because, along with all of the challenges, these explosive technological changes have given us extraordinary opportunities to further our mission in unexpected new ways and to be more effective, more aggressive and more global than ever before.  Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.

This past January a fire broke out in a nightclub in the City of Santa Maria in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Santa Maria is a college town and the club was packed with young people listening to music and having a good time. As with so many other nightclub fires, including the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island ten years ago, the Santa Maria fire was started when the band used pyrotechnics improperly as part of its act. In this case, one member of the band swung a flare that ignited the foam soundproofing. The fire and smoke spread quickly. The crowd panicked and the exits were inadequate.

That fire in Brazil was the third deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 242 people. The only deadlier ones were the Coconut Grove in Boston that caused 492 deaths and a fire in Luoyang, China on Christmas Day in 2000 that killed 309.

At NFPA, we know how to prevent horrible fires like these. Since the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 we have studied all of them and incorporated the lessons into our Fire Prevention Code, the Life Safety Code and other NFPA documents. But we see this tragic history of nightclub fires repeat itself again and again all over the world.

But, I speak about this tragic fire in Santa Maria not with a sense of resignation or defeat, but with a feeling of hope. That fire and its aftermath showed us the potential that NFPA has today, to reach more places than ever before with our codes and standards, our research, our training and our education programs and to prevent these horrific fires that are all too frequent in so many parts of the world.

Early on that January morning, right after the fire, several Brazilian media outlets including the major television networks had (with a little help from us) found their way to the NFPA website. There they discovered all of the information we have posted about nightclub fires including the detailed reports about the code changes made after the Station Nightclub fire.

In covering this national tragedy the Brazilian media were anxious for any help they could get. Our Public Affairs department talked to them all day. On that very first day when most Brazilians were watching the television coverage, they heard constant references to NFPA codes and standards. They became acquainted with who we are and what we do. They saw Skype interviews with me and members of our engineering staff detailing what actions might be taken to prevent a catastrophe like that from happening again in Brazil.

I am telling you this story not to brag about publicity that NFPA gets these days around the world. What happened next is the important part.

As a direct result of the coverage that we got in Brazil, on that day and the days that followed, we were asked by the Fire Department in Rio de Janeiro to provide technical assistance to them as they revise their fire codes. We are now translating NFPA 1, the Fire Prevention Code, and 101, The Life Safety Code, into Portuguese and we hope that key provisions from those codes will be adopted in Rio and ultimately throughout the whole country. Brazil has become an economic powerhouse over the last 20 years. Providing a higher standard of safety is especially important to the country right now as they prepare to welcome millions of visitors when they host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

The investment that NFPA is making in technology is all about stories like this. We will expand NFPA’s influence by reaching people in new and compelling ways to raise the levels of safety everywhere in the world.

More than a decade ago, we made the decision to make all NFPA codes and standards available to the public on the internet at no cost. They cannot be downloaded or printed but anyone with access to the internet anywhere in the world can read any NFPA code or standard. People don’t have to buy their own copy or find a library that has one in order to gain access to our documents.

Several states link from their official website to our site to give all of their citizens access to our codes and standards. We hope that all of the states will do it and we don’t charge them anything. Federal officials have cited NFPA as the model for the bold and creative way that we have expanded access to our codes and standards. Now the public can get access to any of our codes and standards without having to pay a dime.

As most of you know, we have a new online code development process. The reason we have changed the process is to take maximum advantage of technology to make our system more accessible, user friendly, fast, efficient and transparent. Embracing technology in our development process will ensure that we continue at the forefront of standards and code developers for the next generation and it will also lead to wider use of NFPA codes and standards worldwide.

We are moving quickly toward the development of a whole suite of new products to better serve those who rely on NFPA. We have eighteen new apps. including one for the NEC. We will be rolling out new online tools to help all of you apply NFPA codes and standards where you work. Online training is gaining greater acceptance and as that demand grows in the coming years you will see a wider range of learning opportunities from NFPA online. One great example is that in our electric vehicle training program we have already trained 20,000 emergency responders online.

We have seen a big shift in our public education programs toward online distribution of educational materials. I urge you to go to the site and take a look at the materials which include our Learn Not to Burn Preschool Program, and a new Learn Not to Burn for Grade 1. Our Remembering When Program for older adults will be available online in early November. You will also find our fire safety tip sheets and easy-to-read safety information in 12 languages. Our annual school outreach program will be distributed completely online reaching hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of kids and families. We are offering a free interactive storybook app and educators will have access to interactive activities that bring fire safety education to life. Sparky the Fire Dog’s website continues to expand with the latest technology and now includes a full mobile site with fun activities and lifesaving fire safety information for everyone. Through the internet we are making available all of this life saving information to the people most at risk at no cost. Now everybody can benefit from our great public education programs.

We could not pursue our advocacy programs without the internet. I have spoken in the past about our successful fire safe cigarette campaign. We organized all of the states almost totally online. People all across the country used the information from our website to organize statewide campaigns and because of those campaigns, every state has passed fire safe cigarette laws. We are now seeing fewer people killed in smoking related fires every year. Hundreds of lives have already been saved and thousands will be saved over the next decades because of that campaign.

And we are using the same tools for our fire sprinkler initiative.

We have organized our legislative efforts online and have stayed ahead of our opponent’s efforts to kill sprinkler proposals in several states.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation recently needed to find experts to assist in a highly technical research project. They went to LinkedIn. Four people with superb qualifications and hard to find expertise were located within a day. One of them came from Australia and another from the U.K. It is far easier now to coordinate our research efforts with experts from all parts of the world.

All of these stories are really just the beginning of a very exciting era. They give us a glimpse into what NFPA has the potential to become. 

Since our founding in 1896, we have been driven by a noble mission to save lives and protect property. The National Electrical Code is a crowning accomplishment in and of itself and the standard for electrical safety around the world.  The alarm codes, sprinkler code, life safety code, fire prevention and gas codes are relied on by regulatory officials at all levels of government, industries, communities and consumers to protect the public. NFPA’s reputation for bringing together the right people to tackle tough technical questions has never been higher.

But in the past we were limited because all this information had to be printed and distributed. Today those limitations are gone. Technical experts, fire officials, safety advocates or just regular people who want to keep their families and communities safe can find the answers to all sorts of safety questions from NFPA whenever they want and wherever they are in the world.

Our future is unlimited. Our goal is to use technology to make NFPA the most influential force for fire and electrical safety everywhere in the world.

We need your help to accomplish that goal. And we need your ideas. I hope that you will support this effort. Give us your advice and your thoughts. Let’s make these next years in this remarkable era the best years NFPA has ever seen.