Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 1, 2018.

Future Now

Flying Ubers, smart sensors, tall (and taller) wooden buildings, the cutting-edge tech of the pot industry, and more: A tour of some of the highlights of the distinctly forward-looking 2018 NFPA Conference & Expo


It seems like an appropriate moment for NFPA to consider the future, especially since it’s already here. For some of us, though, it doesn’t quite look the way we thought it would.

Pop culture writers of the mid– to late–20th century seemed to believe that our present era would be a kind of futuristic spectacle. Some envisioned a flashy world with flying cars and robot nannies, while others saw a future swept into a dystopian nightmare of marauding spaceships and murderous cyborgs.

Now that we’re here, though, 2018 doesn’t feel much like The Jetsons, Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. To some, the sentiments of the Scottish indie-rock band We Were Promised Jetpacks is a more accurate depiction.

But if we zoom out from our day-to-day view and take an unbiased inventory of our progress from then to now, 2018 is actually a lot closer to The Jetsons than some might think.

In this century, for the first time, artificial intelligence is starting to move from science fiction to reality. Powerful computers, sifting unimaginable quantities of data, can tell us what the future holds with startling accuracy. Nearly every person living in the U.S. has a high-powered computer sensor on their wrist or in their pocket. Robot servants vacuum our houses, turn down the heat, make us dinner reservations, and buzz above our heads filming family movies. Flying taxis are around the corner (keep reading). And jetpacks are finally here—just ask firefighters in Dubai, who use the devices to attack blazes in high-rise buildings.

While many of these advancements make our daily lives easier, they can also present enormous fire and life safety challenges for the people tasked with keeping us safe. Cultural and social changes are also reshaping our world and come with their own sets of unforeseen safety concerns. In 1968, would anyone on the Denver Fire Department have believed that in 50 years they would need to inspect nearly 500 legal marijuana grow and processing facilities in their jurisdiction?

Professionals in engineering, research, and fire protection have never had so much to keep up with. Neither has NFPA.

Although there is no official theme to NFPA’s 2018 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, the slate tilts heavily toward the emerging technologies and challenges presented by a rapidly changing world—the point where past and future meet in the dynamic swirl of the present. Throughout the four-day conference, nearly every education session time slot includes a topic or discussion related to an emerging issue or technology that NFPA stakeholders are confronting in the field every day.

Jim Carroll, a futurist and expert on trends and innovation, will deliver the keynote address at the general session on Monday, June 11. His talk, “The Future Belongs to Those who are Fast,” will take stock of the dizzying changes happening in our world, and explain how the fire and life safety professions can not only survive it, but thrive.

On the expo floor, NFPA will debut an interactive home of the future, where attendees can experience a hands-on introduction to some of the cutting-edge equipment we find in homes today. Using a virtual reality headset, guests can learn more about how these systems work, and see what other new-age features could soon become commonplace in residences across the world.

Throughout the pages of this issue of NFPA Journal, we will introduce you to many other highlights of the 2018 NFPA Conference & Expo, including some on the most pressing emerging issues facing the safety community in 2018. You’ll find features on NFPA’s new standards on active shooters and energy storage systems, as well as forward-looking changes to some of NFPA’s key codes. In “Perspectives,” you’ll find a powerful first-person piece about one firefighter’s struggle with mental health, a preview of a conference education session. The issue also contains an array of other items you’ll find useful as you stroll the halls of the Mandalay Bay Conference Center in Las Vegas.

To get you started, here’s a quick look at some of those emerging issues, and some of the education sessions on tap to address them.

Data, sensors, and information

Computers are so good at analyzing the world’s ever-increasing raft of data that they can practically tell us the future. If Google analytics can accurately predict the timing and severity of the upcoming flu season, why can’t fire departments use data to accurately predict where the next fire will be? Amazingly, many already are.

Data, sensors, and information Sessions
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 11-14, 2018

Digital Smart Maintenance
Tuesday, June 12, 8–9 a.m.

Fang Li, Abundance Fire Safety; Sheng Li, founder, CNSPEC

What Artificial Intelligence Can (and Cannot) Do for Firefighting, Emergency Response, and Safety Inspections
Tuesday, June 12, 9:30–10:30 a.m.

Joseph Gochal, head of data and analytics, NFPA

Next Generation Smart and Connected Fire Fighter Systems
Tuesday, June 12, 11 a.m.–noon

Casey Grant, executive director, Fire Protection Research Foundation; Ramiro Jordan, professor, University of New Mexico; Martínez-Ramon, professor, University of New Mexico

NFPA Data Solutions Portal
Tuesday, June 12, 2–3 p.m.

Joseph Gochal, head of data and analytics, NFPA

What’s the Deal with All This Data Stuff?
Tuesday, June 12, 3:30–4:30 p.m.

Christina Francis, fire protection engineer for The Procter & Gamble Co.; Kate Dargan; Matt Hinds-Aldrich, NFPA; Erich Roden, FireRescue Magazine; Sara Wood, NFIRS program manager, Office of the Kansas state fire marshal

Leveraging Data to Engage At-Risk Communities Around the World
Wednesday, June 13, 11 a.m.

Lucian Deaton, Wildfire Division, NFPA; Michele Steinberg, Wildfire Division manager, NFPA; Oriol Vilalta, General Manager of the Pau Costa Foundation, Spain

Community Risk Reduction Data: The Next Frontier
Wednesday, June 13, 8–9 a.m.

Matt Hinds-Aldrich, NFPA

From predictive analytics to virtual reality training to artificial intelligence and the rise of smart sensors and devices, the fire and life safety world is becoming more tech savvy every day. How can you use all this stuff, without going back to school for a computer science degree?

Multiple education session at this year’s conference will tell you what it all means, what other departments and agencies are doing with these powerful tools, and how NFPA’s new and powerful Data Solutions Portal can help.

Flying Ubers

Have you ever sat in traffic and daydreamed about lifting off the ground and flying above the gridlock? As fantastical as it sounds, something like that might actually come true in the not-too-distant future.

Flying Ubers Session

The eVTOL Revolution: How the Next Generation of Air Travel will Impact Fire and Life Safety
Tuesday, June 12, 3:30–4:30 p.m.

Rex Alexander, pilot, Uber; Celina Mikolajczak, director of engineering, energy storage systems, Uber

The ride sharing company Uber has announced plans to launch a flying taxi service as soon as 2020 in Dallas, Dubai, and Los Angeles, ferrying passengers at low altitudes from rooftop to rooftop. Not only has Uber already received support from these first host cities to test the model, it has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to create a new air traffic control system to manage the low-flying, possibly autonomous aircraft.

The aircraft that Uber plans to use for the venture are called eVTOL, short for electric vertical takeoff and landing, and dozens of companies are working to launch the technology, according to Uber. Recharging the vehicles between flights would likely require the installation of multiple large energy storage systems, possibly on rooftops, throughout host cities. If the service became ubiquitous, as Uber hopes, these charging stations, as well as the airborne battery systems themselves, would require serious consideration from fire and safety professionals, as well as codes and standards developers.

A team from Uber will present this plan and discuss some of the implications during a panel discussion at the upcoming Conference & Expo.

Flammable refrigerants

What if most refrigerators, air conditioners, and commercial cooling cases were filled with propane, or some other flammable material? How would it impact safety and fire protection during installation, maintenance, or especially during a fire?

Flammable Refrigerants Sessions

Using R-290 (Propane) in Commercial Refrigeration Applications: Hazards and Mitigation
Tuesday, June 12, 11 a.m.–noon

Scott Davis, president, GexCon US

The Changing Face of Refrigerants
Wednesday, June 13, 2–3 p.m.

Stephen Spletzer, HVACR professional, The Chemours Company

Those questions, far from being hypotheticals, are what a lot of researchers have been working hard to answer.

Refrigerants are the substances that circulate through cooling systems to absorb heat and cool the air. In 2016, nearly 200 nations agreed to phase out the most widely used types of refrigerants due to their links to global warming. The perfect replacement, however, hasn’t been easy to find. Some are too toxic, while others are inefficient. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency is giving the go-ahead for manufacturers to start using refrigerants that are at least slightly flammable—and in some cases, highly flammable.

One of the most popular proposed refrigerant alternatives is a substance called R-290 propane, which is favored by some large supermarket retailers for its environmentally friendly qualities and its cooling efficiencies. In November, the Fire Protection Research Foundation published a study (available at assessing the risks of using R-290 in refrigeration used in commercial retail and kitchen settings. The study assessed how flammability risks change when different quantities, or charge sizes, of R-290 are used in appliances. It also looked at possible ways to limit those risks, and variables that might impact potential explosions.

Learn about what the study found and the potential consequences of the changing landscape of refrigerants during two informative education sessions at the 2018 NFPA Conference & Expo.

Should we be worried about tall wooden buildings?

Last year, architects working with the University of Cambridge, unveiled renderings for a conceptual 80-story wooden tower that could one day be built in downtown Chicago. A few months later, in February, a Japanese company called Sumitomo Forestry announced its own concept for a 70-story, 1,148-foot, mixed-use skyscraper in Tokyo. The building would use more than 6.5 million cubic feet of timber and cost an estimated $5.6 billion to build, according to the company, which is targeting a 2041 completion date.

Tall Wooden Buildings Sessions

Fire Safety Challenges of Tall Wood Buildings, Phase 2 Research Results
Monday, June 11, 8:30–9:30 a.m.

Daniel Brandon, researcher, Research Institutes of Sweden; Joseph Su, principal research officer, National Research Council Canada’s Fire Safety Unit.

Regulating Timber in Tall Buildings
Monday, June 11, 10–11 a.m.

Carl Baldassarra, principal, Wiss, Janney, Elstner and Associates; David Barber, principal, Arup; Sean DeCrane, Codes and Advisory Services Department, UL; Stephen DiGiovanni, fire protection engineer, Clark County Department of Building and Fire Prevention, Las Vegas; Sam Francis, American Wood Council

While it’s too early to know if either project will actually be completed, what is clear is that building tall wooden buildings is an architectural trend on the rise. A growing list of tall wood projects have been completed or contemplated in recent years, including a proposed 34-story wood building in Stockholm, a planned 19-story wood building in Vancouver, and others planned for Amsterdam, London, and New York. Last year, the current world’s tallest wooden building, an 18-story, 174-foot-tall dormitory tower, opened at the University of British Columbia.

While architects and environmentalists tout wood’s strength, versatility, and sustainability, some worry about how these structures withstand fire. Does timber construction increase the fire load, or quicken the fire growth rate? Could fires in these buildings possibly overwhelm suppression systems?

To help answer some of those questions, the Fire Protection Research Foundation has undertaken a research project called the “Fire Safety Challenges of Tall Wooden Buildings.” Phase 2 of that project, which consisted of six large-scale test burns, was released in February and is available online at

Learn more about what the tests revealed, questions that remain, and how these new structures might be regulated during two education sessions on tall wooden buildings.

Marijuana takes off

Marijuana legalization is sweeping North America, with recreational pot now legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Canada is poised to fully legalize marijuana this summer.

Marijuana Session

Cannabis Growing and Fire Safety: The AHJ Perspective
Monday, June 11, 10–11 a.m.

Kristin Bigda, principal fire protection engineer, NFPA; Ray Bizal, senior regional director, NFPA; Jennifer L. Hoyt, chief fire protection engineer, Massachusetts Department of Fire Services; Jacob Nunnemacher, fire protection engineer, Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal

Naturally, regulators everywhere tasked with overseeing the cannabis industry’s complicated grow and processing facilities have questions. Concerns include hazardous and flammable materials, fumigation, CO2 enrichment, high-powered electrical equipment, fertilizers, illicit processing operations, and more. All of these and the new chapter in NFPA 1, Fire Code, on marijuana facilities will be covered in a roundtable discussion at the Conference & Expo.

Combustible exterior cladding

June 14 marks the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the worst fire incident in the modern history of the United Kingdom.

Combustible exterior cladding Sessions

Assessing Fire Risk in High-Rise Buildings with Combustible Insulation: A New Tool for the Enforcement Community
Tuesday, June 12, 11 a.m.–noon

John Barrot, fire engineer, Arup; Birgitte Messerschmidt, applied research director, NFPA

Fire Test Standards for Exterior Wall Assemblies
Wednesday, June 13, 8–9 a.m.

Gaurav Agarwal, senior research scientist, FM Global; J.C. Harrington, staff vice president, engineering standards, FM Global; Michael S. Slocumb, senior engineer, FM Global

Exterior Wall Flammability—A Growing Global Concern
Wednesday, June 13, 9:30–10:30 a.m.

Dwayne Sloan, technical director for building and life safety technologies at UL

The fire began inside an apartment in the 24-story London high-rise and raced up the side of the building at astonishing speed. Investigators later determined that the building’s combustible exterior façade, which some observers said burned with the ferocity of gasoline, greatly hastened the fire’s spread to other floors. The resulting 71 deaths and 70 injuries produced an outcry throughout the UK and launched a worldwide effort to identify other buildings with similar exterior cladding. Some experts believe there could be hundreds more.

In January, NFPA launched EFFECT™, a free data tool (online at to help officials determine which buildings are at highest risk for combustible exterior wall assembly fires. The tool, how it works, and how to use it are the topics of an education session at the conference. Two additional sessions cover the latest research and fire test standards, as well as what is being done to ameliorate the flammable cladding problem, one of the most discussed fire safety issues in the world today.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Uber