How are NFPA Standards Keeping Pace with Innovation?

As we begin to wind down National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, I’m going to cover some of 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.

These days, more and more fire protection systems are networked to Building Control Systems - the Internet of Things (IoT). 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.

Codes and standards play a critical role in protecting people and property, 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.

There are at least 16 NFPA standards that have cybersecurity references including NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code 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. Remote testing is also addressed in NFPA 72. During the most recent 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. In fact, NFPA 72 includes an entirely new annex called Guidelines for Cybersecurity.

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 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. Consider 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, Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems, NFPA 15, Standard for Water Spray Fixed Systems for Fire Protection  and NFPA 16, Standard for the Installation of Foam-Water Sprinkler and Foam-Water Spray Systems 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.  

Code Making Panels (CMPs) working on the 2023 National Electrical Code® (NEC®) or NFPA 70 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 revolutionizing how we communicate with digital devices.

CMP-13 is also looking at Emergency Lighting Using Power over Ethernet (PoE) 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.

Several NEC CMPs are 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.

These 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 the NFPA 70B, Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance and NFPA 70E®, Standard for 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. The Association has covered cyber security extensively over the last year beginning with a digital transformation keynote that NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley delivered last August to building and life safety and fire protection professionals. In the year since, NFPA or its research affiliate, the Fire Protection Research Foundation have released research related to fire protection systems, an NFPA Journal® podcast and articles, external articles related to health care systems, and a webinar panel discussion that covered, in part, proceedings from a workshop earlier in the year. All this content and context is designed to inform stakeholders about innovation and potential issues that may arise with progress.

As one might expect, things will continue to evolve with codes and cyber security trends. The good news is that NFPA staff and volunteers from 42 countries who fill more than 9000 technical committee seats will continue considering innovation and potential challenges because it is critical that safety and progress move forward 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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