Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on January 2, 2018.

Safety Delayed

Why it’s time for elected officials to take the pleas of special interests with a grain of salt and trust in the code adoption process

In an independent survey of more than 1,000 U.S. residents recently commissioned by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, 86 percent of respondents reported that they felt confident that if they bought a newly constructed home, it would meet the most up-to-date fire and electrical safety codes.

The fact is, though, if you live in Pennsylvania and many other places in the U.S., your new house may be built to electrical codes 10 years out of date.

There are a few reasons for that, including the politicization of code adoption and reliance on less efficient mechanisms for adoption, which have resulted in a number of states being years behind current codes. States that fall behind are delaying safety advances for their citizens.

In today’s contentious political environment, it perhaps comes as no surprise that even electrical code adoption isn’t above the fray. Concerns about politicization of the code adoption process were raised repeatedly in surveys and interviews recently conducted with individuals who have electrical code adoption responsibilities in their states or counties. These conversations, conducted on behalf of the Policy Institute, were used to gain insights into the code adoption process and to better understand its challenges. Many of the professionals interviewed told us that they worried that their independence and expertise were under heavy scrutiny by elected officials who, often beset by special interests, equate cutting regulatory burdens with slowing code adoption.

The mechanisms used by states to adopt codes can also impact the amount of time it takes, or whether entire code cycles are skipped. Looking at adoption trends for the 2008, 2011, and 2014 editions of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), we found that states that entrust the adoption to a panel of experts like an electrical board, for example, tend to adopt updates to the NEC in roughly half the time it takes states without electrical boards. Additionally, states that do not prioritize adoption of the NEC, and wait to adopt it as a package with other codes, lag roughly 14 to 18 months behind states that adopt the NEC directly.

All of this means that states can vary widely in whether they are using the most up-to-date electrical safety knowledge available. Massachusetts, for instance, reliably adopts each new edition of the NEC six months after the code is published; some states, such as Wyoming, do so in 12 months. But other states wait much longer. Utah took 36 months to adopt the 2014 NEC; Virginia took 56 months; and Pennsylvania took 65 months to adopt the 2008 NEC, with no updates since.

These delays in code adoption have real-world consequences for citizens. The NEC is a central component of the electrical safety ecosystem; thanks in part to advances facilitated by the code, the number of U.S. home fires involving electrical malfunction or failure fell from 75,000 in 1980 to 48,100 in 2014, according to NFPA fire analysis statistics. Despite this success, from 2010 to 2014 there were still an annual average of 45,120 electrical-related home fires in the U.S., resulting in an average of 420 deaths and 1,370 injuries. States that neglect prompt adoption of the NEC will stymie progress in bringing the number of fires, deaths, and injuries to zero.

Most elected officials are naturally concerned with acting in the best interest of citizens. As the product of a national-level consensus process, codes like the NEC reflect extensive deliberations from varied stakeholders on the minimum level of safety for electrical installations. Politicians need to trust the experts who participate in the NEC development and electrical boards or others appointed to oversee adoption in their states and point special interests toward the national process rather than retread the ground that’s already been plowed. Not only does this bring the safety and innovation supported by the NEC to citizens faster, it is indeed what they expect.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Policy Institute.