Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on January 6, 2014.

In A Flash - January / February 2014

A new NIST study on the Joplin tornado disaster points the way to new code provisions and public safety strategies

By Fred Durso, Jr.

THE U.S. SHOULD DEVELOP AND ADOPT standards and model codes that better resist the debilitating effects of tornadoes.

This recommendation was one of the key conclusions from the newly released draft report, "Technical Investigation of the May 22, 2011, Tornado in Joplin, Missouri," by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The two-year study highlighted key findings following an EF5 tornado — the strongest type, according to the Enhanced Fujita scale — that caused 161 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries, making it the deadliest single tornado on record.

The incident was also the costliest for a tornado, with damages estimated at $3 billion. In total, more than 550 nonresidential buildings — a hospital, 10 public schools, several parochial schools, 28 churches, two fire stations, and numerous commercial facilities — were severely damaged. The storm also ravaged 7,500 residential structures. According to the NIST report, the city of Joplin did not require the construction of shelters or safe rooms in residential and nonresidential facilities at the time of the tornado, nor did it operate or own any public storm shelters.

Since the majority of deaths occurred inside buildings, NIST researchers examined U.S. model building codes and standards. These include the International Building Code; NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code; NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®; and a related standard by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The report concluded that while model codes have constantly revised provisions for wind-resistant design, these requirements aren’t expected to withstand "the combined hazards of extreme wind speeds and wind-born debris impact associated with strong tornadoes." The codes also don’t require occupant shelters for conventional buildings in tornado-prone regions.

The varying degree to which the state of Missouri uses tornado communication systems was another concern. Use of the systems varied from city to city, which can confuse residents during emergency situations, stated the report. Requirements for emergency messaging in NFPA 72 could alleviate this problem.

"Based on our significant body of research and observations from such events, our scientific understanding of tornadoes and their effects has matured substantially," says Eric Letvin, director of NIST’s disaster and failure studies. "The overarching conclusion of our two-year study is that death and destruction from tornadoes can be reduced. It’s time to begin developing and implementing standards and codes that directly address tornado hazards."

The NIST report recommends the development and adoption of performance-based standards for tornado-resistant design. The various elements in the report are likely to influence the aforementioned NFPA codes, as well as NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, and the proposed NFPA 1616, Mass Evacuation and Sheltering.

"The Joplin study looks at the big picture of mitigation efforts through building design, better defining and categorizing the hazards, getting early notification out, getting those in harm’s way to react, and reengaging the community in the response, recovery, and rebuilding effort," says Robert Solomon, NFPA’s division manager for Building and Life Safety Codes. "The report also comes at a time when standards development organizations like NFPA are looking more broadly at resiliency concepts in the built environment."

NIST expects to release the final version of its Joplin report in early March. Download the draft report at — click on "publications" and search for "Joplin."

"Highest Level of Approval"
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board commends NFPA’s code-creation action following a deadly power plant explosion

By Fred Durso, Jr.

On February 7, 2010, a massive explosion rocked Kleen Energy, a natural gas-fueled power plant under construction in Middletown, Connecticut. The cause was a result of a "gas blow," a commonly used cleaning procedure where flammable gas is blown through piping at a high pressure. The gas was discharged to an area where dissipation was impaired; it eventually ignited, and the blast killed six workers and injured nearly 50 others. NFPA responded rapidly to the incident by creating its first provisional standard, NFPA 56 (PS), Fire and Explosion Prevention During Cleaning and Purging of Flammable Gas Piping Systems, which was issued in less than 76 weeks after the explosion. By comparison, it takes about 100 weeks to revise documents through NFPA’s Annual revision cycle and 140 weeks for its Fall revision cycle.

In November, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) commended this effort at the American Gas Association’s Safety Summit in Washington, D.C. Charged with investigating serious chemical accidents and hazards, the CSB issued urgent recommendations to NFPA in June 2010 to prohibit potentially unsafe pipe cleaning. "We heartily commend NFPA for acting promptly and decisively in adopting the CSB recommendations in record time," says CSB chair Rafael Moure-Eraso. "Our board recently voted unanimously to close this recommendation as ‘exceeds recommended action’ — our highest level of approval."

Since a number of natural gas-fired power plants are planned for construction across the U.S. in the next few years, Moure-Eraso said NFPA would be "instrumental in preventing further loss of life and property damage."

NFPA 56 (PS) prohibits the use of flammable gas for internal cleaning of piping and recommends air, steam, water, or inert gas as substitutes. Specific procedures and training during pipe cleaning are also outlined in the standard. NFPA 56 lost its provisional status when it went through a revision in accordance with NFPA’s Regulations Governing Committee Projects. The 2014 edition of the standard, which was issued by NFPA’s Standards Council on May 28, 2013, has additional requirements that address the use of pressure relief valves and associated piping in purging and cleaning processes.

Read the NFPA Journal feature story on the formation of the new NFPA 56 (PS) at

Where the Street Has a Name
New signage commemorates the Cocoanut Grove Fire

By Fred Durso, Jr.

The Shawmut Street Extension is aesthetically unremarkable, yet tragically significant.

Separating a fenced-in empty lot from a high-rise parking deck in the Bay Village neighborhood in downtown Boston, the tiny road serves as the partial site of the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub, which was destroyed by fire on November 28, 1942. The blaze killed 492 people and remains the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. A weathered plaque placed on a nearby sidewalk in 1993 has been the only indication of the site’s tragic past.

The plaque wasn’t enough for a trio of Boston-area residents, who sought something more significant to commemorate the site. Their efforts culminated in an event on November 30, when Shawmut Street Extension was officially renamed Cocoanut Grove Lane. Occurring two days after the 71st anniversary of the fire, the ceremony brought together city officials, historians, and survivors — one in a wheelchair, others gripping canes — who spoke about the tragedy’s impact on their lives. "It’s been a great loss in my life, but so many good things came out of this [fire]," Ann Gallagher, 87, said at the event. She survived the blaze that killed her parents and boyfriend.

It all came about as a result of a chance conversation in a cigar shop. Mike Hanlon, a Boston native, had no ties to the Cocoanut Grove tragedy, but he’d been fascinated by the fire for years. In December 2012, Hanlon was in his favorite cigar shop in Watertown, Massachusetts, when he struck up a conversation about the fire with fellow patron Kenneth Marshall, whose mother had worked at Boston City Hospital during the fire. When Marshall mentioned he had never been to the Bay Village site, the two immediately headed to Boston for a field trip. "Granted, there is a plaque on the ground, but there should be more," says Hanlon, 67.

The men had an idea to convert the empty lot into a memorial park, but later learned that developers have plans to construct new housing on the site. "We just kept looking at that road sign and came to a conclusion," says Hanlon. "Maybe [the name change] is the thing that we can get accomplished right now." With help from resident Paul Miller, who lives near the site, the trio presented its case to the city, which approved the name change on September 5.

"It’s about time the city of Boston did something like this," Dorothy Marra Doucette told NFPA Journal at the commemoration event. Her father, Anthony Marra, created the sidewalk plaque — an outline of the building with accompanying text — and is considered the youngest survivor of the fire. He died in 2003 at the age of 76. "An event like this brings so many different walks of life together to share the same bond."

The event served as yet another chapter in the history of Cocoanut Grove, which is being preserved by the Cocoanut Grove Coalition. NFPA launched the coalition and its site,, to collect and preserve the event’s stories and artifacts. For an archived NFPA Journal feature story on the formation of the coalition and the fire’s historic impact, visit


Tesla Fires Under Investigation
NHTSA announces it will look at Model S EV fires

Tesla Motors, the California maker of electric vehicles that has provided NFPA with tips for emergency responders on handling its vehicles during emergencies, has gotten the attention of federal investigators.

In November, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would conduct a probe following three fires involving Tesla’s all-electric Model S. A fire near Seattle, Washington, in October was apparently the result of the car hitting a large metal object at highway speed, puncturing the armor plate on the car’s underside and damaging the vehicle’s battery pack. That same month, another high-speed crash in Mexico resulted in a Model S fire. In November, roadway debris was again blamed for a Tesla fire in Tennessee. No injuries or deaths occurred from the incidents.

NHTSA had announced in October that it would not investigate the Tesla incident in Washington state, saying there was no indication that the fire was caused by a safety defect or that there was any violation of federal vehicle safety standards. Following the Tennessee incident, however, NHTSA said it would in fact mount an investigation of the fires. Tesla has been asked to submit customer complaints, warranty claims, and all information it has on the battery fires to NHTSA, according to Forbes. Tesla told NFPA that it is cooperating fully with the NHTSA investigation.

Separately, following its own Tesla investigation that was prompted by the three fires this year, the German Federal Transport Authority concluded in December that there were no manufacturer-related defects in the Model S.

Emergency responder safety tips from Tesla and other manufacturers are available at NFPA’s EV Safety Training Project website,


Game On
A sneak peek at the upcoming NEC Challenge Championship. Plus, digital versions of NEC products. Three will compete, but only one will be named code buff.

On January 24, NFPA will host the NEC® Challenge Championship, a competition of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® , aficionados competing for a $5,000 prize. More than 500 electrical professionals have participated in the NEC Challenge, a game that took place at three trade shows in 2013. During the contest, participants tested their knowledge on the code, and prizes went to the victors who answered the most questions correctly. The top winner at each event won a free iPad and copy of the 2014 NEC.

The winners from all three tradeshows will compete in the championship. Similar to the NEC Challenge, the championship game includes code-related questions, but there will be three unique rounds of game play, with the final round being a head-to-head challenge between the top two contestants.

Visit for more information, and keep your eyes peeled for more information about the contestants on the NFPA Today blog.

NEC products offered digitally
In other NEC news, Cengage Learning, an educational content, software, and services company for the academic, professional, and library markets is now offering digital versions of NEC products for Kindle and Apple devices. The publications include the 2008, 2011, and 2014 editions of the NEC and related handbooks and pocket guides. The 2012 edition of NFPA 70E®, Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, is also available.

"The print NEC materials have been our best-selling building trades products over the years, so being able to deliver them in an electronic format is very exciting," says Greg Clayton, vice president of Cengage Learning. "Whether professionals need to reference materials on the job site, in their office, or on the road, new digital formats make it easier than ever to have information at their fingertips."

NFPA Prohibits Use of Sky Lanterns
They can be mesmerizing to look at, but sky lanterns can also behave like airborne incendiary devices and should be avoided.

That’s the focus of the message in a new NFPA safety tip sheet underscoring the dangers of sky lanterns. The lanterns have been around for centuries, but a sudden surge of interest prompted the NFPA warnings on the novelties.

Similar to miniature hot-air balloons, sky lanterns are typically constructed of a bamboo frame and oiled rice paper. A flame at the base of the lantern heats the air inside, lowering its density and allowing the lantern to become airborne.

Once aloft, however, the lanterns can be affected by wind, which can force out the hot air and send the flaming lanterns falling back to the ground and possibly into trees, fields, structures, or power lines. NFPA codes do not allow the use of the lanterns under any circumstances.

For more information, visit


Event Safety Guide Released
After two years of development, a new event safety manual has made its debut.

Comprised of safety advocates looking to standardize safety features at live performances, the Event Safety Alliance (ESA) has completed the Event Safety Guide that lists best practices in key operational areas at live events. The guide also makes extensive use of NFPA resources, including NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 160, Use of Flame Effects Before an Audience.

The catalyst for the project was the Indiana State Fair stage collapse in 2011 that killed seven people and injured more than 40. For more details on ESA’s formation and the creation of the Event Safety Guide, read the NFPA Journal feature story, "Allied in Safety," at

First NFPA Standard Translated into Polish
NFPA 92, Smoke Control Systems, is now available in Polish.

Piotr Tofilo, president of the Polish Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, recently visited NFPA’s headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts, to unveil the newly published version of the first NFPA standard published in Polish. NFPA 92 was selected for translation due to its popularity in the country. Up next is the translation of NFPA 204, Smoke and Heat Venting.

New Project Manager Joins NFPA’s Wildfire Division
NFPA recently announced that Lucian Deaton has joined the association as senior project manager of its Wildland Fire Operations Division.

Based in NFPA’s field office in Denver, Colorado, Deaton will manage the division’s outreach efforts, including the Firewise Communities Program and Fire Adapted Communities Initiative.

Deaton served as the wildland fire program manager for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and was responsible for developing and implementing the national Ready, Set, Go! Program in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners. He has also worked in government relations at the IAFC and National Association of Police Organizations.

Remembering When Program Gets New Look
NFPA has revamped its Remembering WhenTM: A Fire and Fall Prevention Program for Older Adults program to reach a larger audience. The materials include updated fire statistics, safety messaging, trivia, and artwork geared toward "younger" older adults. The program’s 16 safety messages — eight apiece on fire prevention and fall prevention — have remained the same.

"The new version targets adults who are just entering their older years," says Karen Berard-Reed, NFPA’s senior project manager. "We hope to encourage these ‘younger’ older adults to develop important safety habits that will carry them through their senior years and help those around them develop safer behaviors."

The free, downloadable materials are available at

London to Host Fire Sprinkler Event
An upcoming event will bring together international experts discussing the latest research, new challenges, and technology related to water-based fire suppression.

Fire Sprinkler International 2014, to be held in London, May 20–22, will be hosted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in partnership with the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association and the European Fire Sprinkler Network.

The event will include the Foundation symposium, "Global Research Update: High Challenge Storage Protection." Program highlights include emerging storage challenges facing global property owners, the latest global research on stored commodities and configuration hazards, and a global insurance perspective on emerging issues.

For more information and to register, please visit