Author(s): James Shannon. Published on May 2, 2014.

THIS IS MY LAST COLUMN AS PRESIDENT OF NFPA. When I came to work here in 1991, we were an organization with a storied history in fire and electrical safety, and we are just as proud of that early legacy today as we were then.

But I never imagined how much our world was about to change. The advent of the Internet and what it meant for the flow and availability of information would soon transform everything we did, as well as provide us with the greatest opportunity in our history.

The challenge is one I have spoken about frequently in recent years. It is the argument that privately developed safety standards lose their copyright protection as soon as they are adopted or referenced by governmental agencies. If this argument for “free information” were to prevail, non-profit safety organizations like NFPA would lose their principal source of revenue and at the very least have to seriously curtail their activities. Public safety would suffer, more standards would be developed by special interests without the protection provided in the balanced and transparent process that we offer, and taxpayers would end up paying for more of the development costs of standards than they do now. Some organizations that develop important safety standards might actually go out of business.

We take seriously our responsibility of ensuring public access to all of our standards, and that is where the Internet offers its greatest opportunity. NFPA was the first standards development organization to provide this kind of access, which means that anyone connected to the web can read any of our standards, any time, anywhere, at no cost. For people who want to own their copies, we make our standards very easy to purchase.

We also use the Internet to provide valuable safety information and expand our global reach. We have revamped our public education program so teachers and parents can print safety tips from Sparky the Fire Dog. Families can get safety information covering everything from grilling to Christmas trees. Firefighters can learn about the latest technological developments in protective clothing and equipment. Around the world, we use the web to promote worker safety in Bangladesh and nightclub safety in Brazil, and share wildfire experiences with our colleagues in Australia. NFPA is now a global source of safety information.

The hard choices for NFPA in the coming years will be about how we maximize our obligation as a mission-driven organization to reach more people while maintaining a strong financial footing. Our success or failure will be measured by whether we have managed the affairs of NFPA so that it remains a vibrant force for fire and electrical safety 50 or 100 years from now.

NFPA is a special organization. I really believe that nobody can do what we do quite as well as we do it. That is because our unique system brings together an exceptional group of committed and talented people: our members, the participants in our standards development process, our board of directors, our educators, and our staff, all of whom are committed to our worthy mission. It has been a privilege for me to be associated with so many great people doing such important work.

The world needs NFPA today more than ever. I have no doubt that it will continue to lead the way to a safer world for many decades to come