Ruminating About Research

I recently sat in on an information-sharing session called Coffee Time at NFPA. Coffee Times are conducted (internally, but virtually these days) by staff looking to apprise colleagues about projects underway, efforts completed, or issues bubbling up for NFPA audiences.

This particular day, a trio of young researchers (engineers by trade) from the Fire Protection Research Foundation, NFPA's research affiliate, spoke about the role of the Research Foundation and some of the projects currently underway. True to both the NFPA and Research Foundation missions, the laundry list of projects touched on every corner of life safety. Newer employees were impressed to hear that more than 50-plus efforts are being managed right now by a small team of five, but for those of us who have worked with or watched the Research Foundation take on challenge after challenge, we were not surprised by the work they quietly do in the interest of safety.

Since 1982, the Research Foundation has been bringing people from diverse backgrounds to the table in much the same spirit as the NFPA standards development consensus process. They delve into issues, incidents, and insights that not only inform the standards development process, but more importantly - inform stakeholders like you.

Our Association is largely known around the world for our standards development work, but there is also a similarly important contribution we make through the work we collaboratively do to produce meaningful research that is used across the globe. The Research Foundation investigates emerging fire safety hazards, and works closely with our equally impressive Data and Analytics and Applied Research departments which are focused on generating information, metrics, tools, and analytics related to the fire problem, building and life safety, fire protection, electrical, responder safety, wildland fires and hazardous materials.  The research arms of NFPA add tremendous value in a world that is never short on threats or hazards.

When I speak with groups, I always point to the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem as the framework to facilitate important safety conversations today – to connect the dots on safety. Chances are you have heard me speak about the eight-component system that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss. One of those components is an investment in safety, which I often describe along two lines. We invest in safety by prioritizing the decisions being made. Choosing to protect people and property, and refusing to pander to politics, budgets or aesthetics is essential. The second way that we invest in safety is with research that addresses the new problems we are facing. While progress can be exhilarating and is certainly needed in our world, we must make sure innovation works alongside safety. We need research, testing, and benchmarks to fully understand issues and opportunities.

Prior to being the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong flew X-15 rocket planes. He was once asked to honor his test pilot colleagues that were among those who flew nearly 200 radical missions in the 50s and 60s. “In much of society, research means to investigate something you do not know about or do not understand,” Armstrong said. “Research is exploration and discovery. It's investigating (something that) no one knows or understands. Research is creating new knowledge.”

The dozens of projects being juggled right now by the Research Foundation will create new knowledge for the built environment, detection and signaling, suppression, emerging technologies, wildfire, first responders, and so many other topics. It will provide you with information you may not even know you need yet. This is the “exploration and discovery” that Armstrong spoke of; that has become synonymous with NFPA. The Research Foundation exists to discover – just last week they received two new grants for research, bringing the total number of grants or subawards to 40 since 2005.

Now, I realize I may be biased about the fantastic research being done by the Research Foundation and our Data and Analytics and Applied Research teams but if you need further proof about the value of research, consider the words of wisdom from a man famously known for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". Or better yet, visit or so you can be well on your way to the understanding that Armstrong spoke about.

This blog originally appeared in the NFPA Network Newsletter. If you find this content insightful, subscribe to the newsletter for monthly personalized content related to the world of fire, electrical, building, and life safety.

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James Pauley
President & CEO of NFPA

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