Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 1, 2016.

Family Ties

Meet Crosby, the servers that usher NFPA into the big-data age


LAST YEAR, NFPA acquired two powerful clusters of computer servers—one for storing massive quantities of data, and the other for processing it—and in doing so stepped into a new era. The servers, dubbed Crosby—after Uberto Crosby, NFPA’s second president, and his son, Everett, co-author of the first Fire Protection Handbook—are similar to Watson, the number-crunching behemoth made famous by IBM. Crosby has quickly become a key part of our team, transforming the notion of “big data” at NFPA from concept to reality.

Definitions of big data abound, but a simple progression used in the field of computer science lays it out well: data leads to information; information leads to knowledge; knowledge leads to wisdom; wisdom equates to power. With data as the raw material to fuel all we do, NFPA is looking to empower all who serve the mission to make the world a safer place. The possibilities to do this are all around us, and we experience “aha” moments on a regular basis as we stumble upon new applications.

One such moment came at the recent Alternative Fuel Vehicles Safety Summit, held in Detroit in June. The workshop on alternative fuel vehicle emergency response brought together emergency responders, automakers, energy providers, regulators, and others. As expected, two of the biggest issues related to this technology were raised: quick incident size-up, and ongoing data collection. First responders need to quickly, safely, and accurately learn onsite what kind of vehicle is involved in an incident, its specifications, and its associated hazards. What kind of fuel is on board? How much energy is left? Where is the damage? In addition, researchers need to be able to better collect detailed data on these incidents to inform more research, better public policy, codes and standards development, and related training materials. Solutions to both of these issues have been elusive, with their own distinct challenges.

Our “aha” moment came during a discussion with automakers about the rapidly advancing vehicle-to-vehicle telematics soon to be implemented by major automakers. These are sophisticated onboard computers that constantly monitor every detail of engine and battery performance, passenger and location data, and specific damage information, and are starting to communicate between vehicles. For emergency responders, we want immediate access to this data, which can provide a direct and straightforward means to address immediate hazard size-up in an emergency. It’s also a wealth of extremely detailed, real-time data that can be automatically captured and fed into Crosby’s powerful analyzing software. Over time, we can draw meaningful correlations, predictions, and observations that can drive the development of codes and standards and training materials, and help manufacturers further improve the safety of their vehicles. With Crosby on board, we can now do this.

At NFPA’s first annual meeting, in 1897, President Uberto Crosby said the object of NFPA is “to bring together the experience of different sections and different bodies of underwriters, to come to a mutual understanding, and, if possible, an agreement on general principles governing fire protection, to harmonize and adjust our differences so that we may go before the public with uniform rules and conditions which may appeal to their judgment.”

The vision of the leaders who founded NFPA is profound. As we enter the 21st century, it is exciting to honor their distinguished legacy and welcome Crosby into the NFPA family.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Photograph: Shutterstock