Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on May 2, 2014.

SINCE I JOINED NFPA IN 2010, I’ve had a number of fire service folks—chiefs, officers, firefighters—tell me that NFPA standards do not pertain to them or to their emergency response organizations. “You know, those standards you make are great for other departments, but they don’t work for us,” they say. “We’re a large department. Our members are very experienced. We’ve never had a problem.” It can be challenging to counter this point of view, but I give it my best.

I have a different perspective on the value of those standards, not because of my current role at NFPA but because I was able to retire from the fire service with my health and fitness more or less intact. For 37 years, almost every time I responded to a call, I wore NFPA-compliant personal protective equipment (PPE), breathed from NFPA-compliant self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and rode on NFPA-complaint fire apparatus. And my training as a firefighter, fire instructor, and fire officer were all certified as compliant with NFPA standards.

The more than 1.1 million firefighters who currently comprise the American fire service are better protected than I was because NFPA standards are revised regularly to address improvements in technology and the needs of first responders. NFPA standards have become so ingrained in the daily operations of the nation’s fire service that many firefighters aren’t even aware of the role those standards play in their departments. Today, it is the norm to have NFPA-compliant PPE and SCBA. So when people say NFPA standards don’t work for them, I reply, “Check out the label on your PPE.”

If you happen to be among those who believe their organizations are too big, or have been in existence so long that they don’t need “national standards” to help them operate, consider the airline industry. It’s comprised of organizations with thousands of employees, that transport millions of passengers each year, and that see billions of dollars in revenue annually—big by any measure. Yet they all utilize the same standards for training, maintenance, route planning, and air crew qualification. Would you rather trust your family’s safety to a carrier with a stellar safety record that uses the entire set of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, or to one that takes an a la carte approach to those regulations?

I just returned from the Tampa 2 Conference sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. More than 200 fire and emergency service professionals gathered to review the “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives,” a program created a decade ago and designed to prevent line-of-duty deaths and injuries. During his keynote presentation, Chief Ernie Mitchell, the U.S. Fire Administrator, used the term “wooden boats on a sea of gasoline” to describe the sense of security folks can develop when they do minimal preparation for a catastrophic event, only to find they have little or no protection when the event occurs.

Did you ever return from an incident feeling like you had just taken a cruise in that wooden boat? Were you relieved to have somehow avoided a spark that could have ignited that sea of gasoline? National standards from NFPA and other organizations can help you navigate those dangerous seas. They’re one of the best tools you have to make sure you get home safely.

KEN WILLETTE is division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA.