How are NFPA Standards Keeping Pace with Innovation?

As National Cybersecurity Awareness Month winds down, it's a great time to look at the ways that NFPA codes and standards are addressing digital transformation and the byproduct of these solutions – the data that is being captured and generated.

Conveniently enough, NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley recently delivered a virtual keynote address for the Siemens Fire & Life Safety Summit that touched on both innovation and cybersecurity. Here's what the head of NFPA had to say.

Standards have a role and that role is rapidly changing because of the digital transformation that is occurring around us. Understanding and integrating digital solutions and smart technologies into building management systems is important - and increasingly being addressed in NFPA codes and standards.

For example, the 2022 edition of NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems will likely contain language about the use of electronically activated sprinklers for the first time. These days, some sprinklers are designed to address fires in higher hazard storage protection, including exposed expanded plastics. Local heat detectors are “wired” to the sprinkler actuator and constantly sample the air temperature to identify a fire event early on. When a fire event occurs, the system will electronically activate sprinklers in a specific pattern around the fire based on the algorithms programmed into the releasing panel. The new technology ensures that only sprinklers that will be effective in suppressing the fire will activate to limit both fire and water damage.

NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code also comes into play here as well since there are electronic components and heat detectors in sprinklers. These systems are connected to a releasing panel that looks a lot like a releasing panel for a pre-action system. It looks like a fire alarm control panel or sub-panel, but it fits into NFPA 13 in the same way that specialty releasing panels do.

On the water-based side, automated testing is heavy in NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems but installation system standards such as NFPA 13, NFPA 14, NFPA 15, and NFPA 16 are catching up and adding allowances for the installation of automated testing systems and components.

Both NFPA 25 and NFPA 20: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection now recognize smart technology by featuring language in their most recent editions about remote automated testing of systems or components. Remote testing eliminates the need for a person to be physically present in a facility and is attractive for building owners who are trying to reduce their operating budget or limit the number of outside service-providers accessing their buildings.

Then there's automated flow switch arrangement and other automated testing equipment which include motorized valves capable of opening and closing, cameras for observation, and auxiliary pumps for circulating water to ensure that automated testing equipment or components do not compromise the integrity of the system. This equipment may cost more upfront, but in just a few short years, operations savings are realized and the investment in capital improvements is validated.  

Remote testing is also addressed in NFPA 72. During this development cycle, the technical committee for NFPA 72 added provisions for remote access to fire alarm and signaling systems. Remote access is permitted for testing and maintenance activities, including resetting, silencing, or operation of emergency control functions. NFPA 72 will also permit remote access for the purposes of performing remote diagnostics and updating software.

Task groups working on the 2023 National Electrical Code (NEC) are also looking hard at digital solutions. Packet Energy Transfer – the system that converts the typical 60 cycle power circuit into a digital signal and reconverts at utilization - is being deployed, but it does not fit well into existing NEC rules, so the standard needs to evolve. Why is this important? Because this technology is being used to power up the 5G equipment that is going to revolutionize how we communicate with digital devices.

NEC task groups are also looking at Emergency Lighting Using Power over Ethernet and Limited Energy Circuits. LED lighting technology has become such a mainstay in the commercial lighting segment, that the use of low-voltage circuits for power and control is becoming increasingly popular.  In commercial buildings, luminaires that provide normal lighting can be used as part of the emergency lighting system, rather than use conduit, tubing and metal-clad cables. Low-voltage (CAT 5 and CAT 6) cables are now used to control and power emergency lighting so the NEC task group has provided recommendations to employ this new technology.

The NEC technical committee is vetting new requirements surrounding localized power microgrid too. Smart buildings want to have localized microgrids that allow for safe interconnection of multiple distributed energy resources with or without a connection to an electric utility system. Digital technology provides the pathway for the interoperability of these systems. The analytics from these systems will also go a long way in making businesses more efficient and to reduce risk.  These analytics become important information for our technical committees so that they can better understand what other changes need to be made to the standard.

More and more fire protection systems are networked to Building Control Systems, it's the Internet of Things. These and many other platforms are, by design or sometimes by oversight, being exposed to the Internet. This connectivity can lead to cyber vulnerabilities and attacks on fire protection systems.

To date, a thorough understanding of fire protection cybersecurity issues has been lacking. So, our research arm, the Fire Protection Research Foundation is working to better understand vulnerabilities, the severity of consequences, and the awareness issues that exist within the fire protection community. When the Foundation research is released in the beginning of the year, it will inform the standards development process.

In the meantime, at least 16 NFPA standards have cybersecurity references including NFPA 72 which features guidance and requirements to address cybersecurity for equipment, software, firmware, tools, and installation methods, as well as the physical security and access to equipment, data pathways, testing, and maintenance. In fact, NFPA 72 includes an entirely new annex called Guidelines for Cybersecurity.

These Internet of Things (IoT) electrical technologies and smart equipment allow for the collection of real-time data, which can then be used to preempt failures, schedule maintenance, and provide safety for workers – the latter benefit is of interest to NFPA 70B – electrical equipment maintenance and 70E – electrical safety in the workplace committees. 

These are just some of the ways that NFPA standards are morphing in digital times and looking to safeguard data. NFPA staff and volunteers from 42 countries who fill more than 9000 technical committee seats will continue considering the innovations and potential challenges that often come with progress because it is critical that safety and progress move in lockstep. 

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Cathy Longley
Communications Manager, informing stakeholders about NFPA thought leadership, subject matter expertise, resources, initiatives & research.

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