Published on July 4, 2014.

Not If, But When
The new NFPA-sponsored “Designing for Disaster” exhibit explores the efforts to protect people and property from the earth’s deadly forces.

Six days, 93 wildfires, two deaths, and more than 100 houses destroyed—the event that locals call “Firestorm ’91” still weighs heavily on the residents of Spokane, Washington, who were there to witness it.

Less than a decade after the tragedy and mere miles from where a woman had died trying to flee her burning neighborhood, developer Chris Heftel set to work planning a large new housing development called River Bluff Ranch. The 2,000-acre site sat precariously along the edge of the heavily forested Riverside State Park, on land snarled with dead trees and vegetation—potential fuel for another wildfire. Heftel and local fire officials feared that the site was primed for a repeat disaster.

Wall of Wind at National Building Museum

The "Wall of Wind" exhibit at the National Building Museum.
PHOTO: National Building Museum

The story of how Heftel overcame those obstacles, and greatly diminished the chances of a fire tragedy at River Bluff Ranch, is one of many told in a new multimedia exhibit, “Designing for Disaster,” on display through August 2, 2015, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit, co-sponsored by NFPA, showcases how engineers, designers, researchers, and everyday citizens are working to make the places people live more disaster-resilient.

“In the urban planning and design fields, resiliency is being talked about a lot more,” said exhibit curator Chrysanthe Broikos, explaining the museum’s decision to highlight the topic. “I do believe resiliency is the next sustainability—it’s a growing field and this is just the beginning.”

The sobering effects of the planet’s destructive forces, whether wrought by earth, air, water, or fire, are each showcased in separate rooms within the “Designing for Disaster” exhibit, along with installations, graphics, case studies, and videos. Walking through each room, visitors learn more about the evolving science of disaster mitigation and how taking a more conscious approach to planning, design, land management, and governance can reduce the impact of the earth’s deadly forces.

The exhibit features a miniature “Wall of Wind,” where visitors can experiment with how different building designs hold up to a Category 5 hurricane. There is also a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-specified safe room for examination; a demonstration of the expansion joints recently installed at the University of California, Berkeley’s football stadium, which allow it to flex with an earthquake; and artifacts from various disasters, including a melted metal trailer hitch from the 2012 Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado.

Perhaps the most dramatic room is reserved for fire. A charred wooden frame outlines the room’s charcoaled-colored walls. The smell of fresh smoke completes the effect, giving visitors the feeling of walking straight into a recently extinguished blaze.

Michele Steinberg, NFPA’s wildland fire projects manager, worked with the museum and provided information and materials for the fire portion of the exhibit. “The concept the museum pitched was very intriguing to us because it dovetails beautifully with what NFPA has been doing for years around hazards, especially wildfire,” said Steinberg. She noted NFPA’s Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities programs, which help residents and community leaders take steps to protect their homes and communities from the ever-present threat of wildfire, especially in the high-risk area known as the wildland/urban interface.

At River Bluff Ranch, Heftel worked with NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program and local officials to reduce fire fuel sources around the site, build evacuation roads and fire breaks, install water tanks and dry hydrants, and establish homeowner covenants requiring fire-resistant roofing, proper defensible space around each house, ongoing vegetation maintenance, and more. Such “firewise” building “is still rather uncommon in this country,” Steinberg said, but she agreed that the resiliency concept is quickly gaining momentum.

And no wonder—according to nearly every metric, the frequency and direct cost of natural disasters are soaring. Since 1996, an average of about 60 major disasters have been declared by the president each year in the United States, including 62 in 2013, according to FEMA statistics. Prior to 1996, no U.S. president had declared more than 48 major disasters in the country over the course of a year.

The cost of such disasters is also rising sharply. Even when adjusted for inflation, seven of the 10 costliest disasters in U.S. history have occurred since 2004, according to the Insurance Information Institute, which tracks property losses.

“Clearly this is a story that needs to be told,” said Chase Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum. “We need to educate people that, yes, this can happen to you—every place on the globe is in the path of a natural disaster. And most importantly, yes, there is something you can do about it.”

If You Go
  • What: “Designing for Disaster” multimedia exhibit
  • Where: National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.
  • When: The exhibit is on display now and runs through August 2, 2015. The museum’s hours are Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Cost: $8 for adults; $5 for kids, seniors, and students. Free for museum members. For more information call 202-272-2448
  • See more photos, videos, and read more about the exhibit.


    The NFPA Angle

    While the mainstream catches up, NFPA has been leading disaster-prevention efforts for years, and its codes and standards contain numerous provisions designed to protect life and property in even the most extreme circumstances. Here are just a few:

    You can’t protect every facility against every contingency, but you can build in important protections and also develop a plan to recover as soon as possible,” said Don Bliss, NFPA’s vice president for field operations. “We still have a long way to go before these ideas reach a tipping point with the general public, but there is certainly a lot more awareness out there now.”


Las Vegas Update

Smoke compartment size in hospitals, along with video monitoring of stairwells in high-rise buildings, led the topics discussed at the Association Technical Meeting in Las Vegas in June.

Both topics were related to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, one of 12 documents considered by voting members at the meeting. All of the documents were completed and await issuance as 2015 editions pending appeals adjudication and approval by the Standards Council.

NFPA Technical Meeting in Las Vegas 2014

The NFPA Technical Meeting in Las Vegas, June 2014.
PHOTO: Laurie Dewitt

Seven certified amending motions were considered for NFPA 101, and spirited debate focused on a new provision that would have nearly doubled the allowable size of smoke compartments—areas that can be protected against smoke and fire during fire events—in hospitals. Proponents argued that increasing the size of the compartments would reduce building upkeep and staffing costs and have no adverse impact on patient safety. Those against worried that larger compartment sizes would mean more people in harm’s way in the event of a fire within the compartment.

By a slim margin, 129–121, members voted to keep the maximum size of those compartments at the current 22,500 square feet (2,100 square meters), nixing a proposal to expand the allowed size to 40,000 square feet (3,720 square meters).

Ron Coté, NFPA’s principal life safety engineer, said that there were enough unknowns to make voting members wary of making the change. “Nobody said the concept wasn’t any good, but the Technical Committee didn’t really fill in all the holes,” he said, noting that voters concluded that expanding the compartments “might result in less safe conditions for patients than what is currently provided.” Coté said he expects the Technical Committee to revisit the topic for the 2018 edition of NFPA 101.

In other NFPA 101 activity, members did not support a challenge to overturn a new provision requiring high-rise buildings—those 75 feet (23 meters) or higher from the lowest level of fire department vehicle access to the highest occupiable story—to install remote video monitoring systems in exit stair enclosures.

The video monitoring devices would be mandated at exit discharge floors and at intervals not exceeding five stories. The video feed would go directly to an emergency command center within the building, allowing emergency responders to monitor developments such as clogged stairwells, whether the doors have been breached, and if people are still moving—information that could help emergency responders identify and mitigate the effects of a stairwell blockage, or alert and redirect people if a stairwell becomes unusable.

The equipment would be required in new construction of high-rise buildings and in all existing high-rise buildings that contain schools. High-rise buildings with fewer than 4,000 occupants would be exempt from the new rule.

Right Message, Right Platform
A new guidance document for NFPA 72 offers best practices for creating and disseminating emergency messaging

by Matt Perkins

What to say, how to say it, and how to deliver it—those are some of the central questions for safety officials when it comes to crafting effective emergency communications. It’s a task further complicated by the rapid evolution of communications technology, including text messaging, email, and social media.

Help is here. “Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings,” a new guidance document created by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, is intended to help alarm system designers, building managers, emergency responders, and authorities having jurisdiction formulate and disseminate emergency messages. The strategies integrate alarm system communication with messaging delivered directly to occupants via computers and smartphones.

The document is organized around five hypothetical situations and includes suggestions for various forms of messaging to be disseminated through audible means, such as building-wide public address systems using sirens and live voice communication, and visual means, such as emails, text messages, and on-site messaging screens or televisions.

In one scenario, a tornado is headed for a college campus, and individuals are asked to shelter in place. The guide recommends two specific types of messages to notify people of the threat: a campus-wide siren with an audible message read by an official alerting occupants to the situation, and a 140-character Twitter message sent to people’s smartphones alerting them to take shelter due to a “strong tornado near campus.”

The guidance document was developed in response to information and messaging needs identified by the Technical Committee for Emergency Communications Systems of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, and derived from a recent report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

While NFPA 72 provided guidance on the design and installation of emergency communication systems, communications technology continued to evolve. As text messaging and social media became nearly ubiquitous, it also became apparent that they were potentially valuable tools for reaching people in an emergency—and that message providers needed guidance in how to navigate this complex new communications landscape.

“There’s been a lot of research on how people react to certain types of communication and how they’re disseminated, but it hadn’t been brought together in a guidance document before,” says Erica D. Kuligowski, author of the NIST report.

The document includes best practices for creating specific alerts, warnings, and messages, as well as message structure and wording. Some of the initial work from the document has already been integrated into the 2013 edition of NFPA 72, and discussions are underway to include more for the 2016 edition.

“We’ve allowed the fire voice system to be used as a mass notification system, and once we allow that, in many cases the building owner doesn’t know what kind of messages to deliver,” says Wayne D. Moore, of Hughes Associates, who served on the report’s project technical panel. “We need to be sure whoever is enforcing this understands there’s a broader base to the requirements. That’s why this is so important.”

Read the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s “Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings” report, and download the full NIST report.

Shannon Honored by Fire Service Organizations

Outgoing NFPA President James Shannon received three special honors in June.

The Metropolitan Fire Chiefs (Metro) Association presented Shannon with the President’s Award of Distinction during its annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The award honors a person who has gone above and beyond to promote Metro values and its mission. In addition, Shannon became only the second person in Metro’s 49-year history to receive the distinction of Honorary Metro Fire Chief, a status reserved for non-members who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in fire and life safety.

“Jim led NFPA to new levels of influence, and no one has done more than he has to support the Metro Chiefs,” said G. Keith Bryant, president of Metro, an association that brings together fire chiefs from large urban fire departments to discuss fire issues and policy.

Also in June, the Pro Board, a fire service accrediting organization, honored Shannon by making a donation to the Fire Protection Research Foundation, which studies a broad range of fire safety issues in support of the NFPA mission.

NFPA Joins Forces with UK Fire Protection Group

Insurance risk professionals in the United Kingdom will now be trained using NFPA’s codes and standards, the result of an agreement reached in May between the United Kingdom Fire Protection Association (FPA) and NFPA.

The FPA will use NFPA training materials and NFPA 1, Fire Code, to develop curriculum for its property risk management education and certification program. The program will teach insurance risk engineers how to determine a property’s risk from fire and other natural hazards, how to estimate potential property losses, and the principles of business loss mitigation and business continuity.

“NFPA is pleased to join FPA in its efforts to advance the qualifications of insurance professionals in Europe using NFPA codes and standards,” said NFPA President James Shannon. “This is a great opportunity to collaborate on a common goal—reducing property losses from fire and associated hazards.”

NFPA Hits 100,000 Facebook “Likes”

Yes, it was an event worthy of cake: NFPA recently hit the 100,000 mark for user “likes” on Facebook.

In fact, by June NFPA’s Facebook page had more than 104,000 user likes, up from 20,000 likes in June 2012.

When a Facebook user clicks the “like” button on a page, they are signing up to see stories from that page in their news feed. The page then also appears in the user’s timeline to be seen by others. NFPA continues to use social media as a way to quickly share news and resources and expand NFPA’s reach.

“The more likes, the more people see your stuff, and the greater the chance they’ll like it and share it,” said Lauren Backstrom, NFPA’s social media manager.

The NFPA Facebook page, created in early 2009, didn’t reach 50,000 likes until last August, then doubled in just the last 10 months. Backstrom said she thinks the page could double again, to 200,000 likes, by the end of this year.

NFPA Donates $100,000 to Electrical Inspectors Organization

NFPA announced it would donate $100,000 to the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) during the recent Conference and Expo in Las Vegas.

The donation will help IAEI purchase a new facility in Dallas, Texas, equipped with a training center, a resource library, and other features that will help IAEI improve and expand products and services.

“NFPA’s generous donation will help future generations of electrical professionals understand the importance of practicing safe installation and staying current with the National Electrical Code,” said David Clements, IAEI’s CEO and executive director.

IAEI is a non-profit association that provides education, inspector certification, advocacy, and helps develop electrical codes and standards.

Wildfire pathways

Grant and others point to urban density and climate change as catalysts for the spike in wildfires that spread to urban areas. Homes are closer to wildland areas—and to each other—than they once were, and climate conditions such as drought and hotter temperatures can fuel fires.

Scientists have long known there are three general pathways for the spread of wildfire into urban areas: traveling embers, radiant heat, and direct contact with flames, according to Steve Quarles, senior scientist at IBHS. Embers are especially problematic, he said, because they can travel a half mile or more, igniting combustible building materials or nearby vegetation.

What still needs to be studied, Quarles said, are details like how much ember exposure is needed to start a fire. Work also needs to be done to prioritize the steps homeowners should take to reduce their risks, whether it’s removing flammable vegetation or replacing combustible roofing materials. Guidelines exist, but they haven’t been ranked by importance, he said.

“At a high level, we understand that home ignitions or building ignitions can begin with one of the three basic exposure levels,” Quarles said. “What we don’t completely understand are some of the nuanced issues.”

Knowledge uncovered through the project, and by associated research, will be used to update NFPA codes, offer homeowners better fire protection advice, and inform NFPA’s Firewise program, which helps communities prepare for wildfires, Steinberg said.

“We don’t know everything” about how structures ignite during wildfire events, Steinberg said. “It’s important that this kind of science be replicated again and again, in detail. You don’t just take a couple studies from the 1990s and say, ‘We’re good.’”

A final report is expected in November.