Author(s): James Shannon. Published on March 1, 2008.

The Firewise® philosophy

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2008

I recently spoke at an event about a program that has been one of NFPA’s great successes of the last few years. The Firewise® Communities /USA Recognition Program coordinated by NFPA and funded by the USDA Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior has brought vital information about protecting themselves from wildfires to 320 communities in the urban/wildland interface across the United States in the last five years.

We have all seen news reports about the devastation wildfires cause, most recently in California. Such fires destroy homes and displace whole communities built close to the nation’s wildlands. We expect the program to continue to grow as concerns about wildfires become more urgent.

The Firewise Program, like most of what we do at NFPA, shows the strength of our practical “bottom up” approach to problem solving.

The best example of this philosophy at work is the process by which NFPA develops codes and standards. From time to time, I am contacted by individuals or groups arguing for a change in an NFPA standard. I explain to them that, as president of NFPA, I do not get directly involved in standards development and I do not have any authority to change our standards. Nor does our technical staff. Our job is to facilitate a consensus process made up of volunteers who make those technical decisions. That is the most valuable service NFPA provides.

The wide acceptance of NFPA codes and standards around the world is testament to the effectiveness of our philosophy. And the same philosophy of asking the people with firsthand experience and technical expertise to tackle these practical problems is what guides most of our activities outside of standards development.

In our public education programs, for example, we work with educators, organizations representing older people, and advocates for people with disabilities when we design our Learn Not to Burn® preschool programRemembering WhenTM fire and fall prevention program for older adults, and Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities.

Some of our most important relationships are with members of the fire service. We listen when they offer their ideas. This winter, we developed a heating safety program that the fire service told us they needed. Every winter, we hear of tragedies that occur when people use space heaters or stoves to heat their homes. We responded by developing a CD containing information describing how to prevent these fires, and we distributed a copy to every fire department in the United States before the cold weather came. This program came from people who saw this problem in their communities and wanted our help solving it.

One of our proudest accomplishments is our work on fire-safe cigarettes. NFPA brought together a true grassroots coalition to achieve a goal that will, over the next several years, save hundreds of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage by preventing smoking material fires. In the states that have changed their laws and those moving toward change, the local people are carrying the argument.

All these initiatives have a tangible effect in making a safer world. We believe that the best way to advance our mission is not to just tell people what to do, but to tap the talents, commitment, and experience of thousands of people who understand the problems and look to them for solutions.

Staying with that philosophy, NFPA will continue to lead the way to a safer world.