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

‘Tension and Uncertainty’

How a diverse technical committee rife with opposing viewpoints created the new NFPA 150


The development of NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code, with its many thorny moral, ethical, and technical issues, was not an easy journey. The process required cooperation between an unusual range of disparate groups, with vastly different priorities and points of view—a group that was even more varied than the typical NFPA committee, according to Tracy Vecchiarelli, an NFPA fire protection engineer and staff liaison for the code.

“This was probably one of the most interesting and complex exercises I’ve ever had as a staff liaison working on a document,” she said. “There were impassioned arguments, there were people crying. It was a very passionate group, many of whom believed deeply in what they wanted, and they did everything they could to get their points across.”

The transformed 2019 edition of NFPA 150 owes its existence to a bitter fight over sprinklers. In 2012, after a series of deadly fires in horse stables, a motion was successfully made at NFPA’s annual technical meeting to require fire sprinklers in all animal housing facilities. The agriculture industry claimed to be blindsided by the requirement, and successfully lobbied the NFPA 150 committee to overturn the decision. Animal rights groups, angry at the reversal, inundated NFPA with hundreds of letters and emails advocating for sprinklers.

In response to the controversy, the NFPA Standards Council in 2012 hosted an overflow meeting packed with members on both sides of the argument. “One of our main concerns was that we did not have a voice in this process,” Paul Pressley, the former executive vice president of industry programs at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, told me.

The rift had exposed a lack of diversity on the NFPA 150 committee, which did not include any agriculture or animal rights representatives. In response, the Standards Council disbanded the existing NFPA 150 committee and opened a reapplication process to broaden its representation. By the time the new committee was in place in 2013, it had grown from 22 to 28 members, and had added representatives from the pork and poultry industries, animal rights groups, and scientific research utilizing animals, as well as additional enforcers and animal rescue specialists.

Members of the new group, while more representative of the diverse array of animal interest groups, were also fractured and at times distrusting of one another, committee members told me. Most of the new members were also unfamiliar with the standards development process and faced a steep learning curve. “Needless to say, our first meetings together [in October 2013] had moments of tension and uncertainty,” Joe Scibetta, a longtime member of the NFPA 150 committee told me. “Some of us wondered how or if we would be able to come together on fire protection solutions that would satisfy the concerns of every committee member.”

NFPA 150 Technical Committee

NFPA 150 committee members on a field trip to a pig raising operation in North Carolina. Photograph: Tracey Vecchiarelli

Wrangling the group’s strong opinions proved difficult at first, and despite a lot of discussion, no significant changes were made for the 2016 edition of NFPA 150. “We got through the process, but we weren’t happy with the end result, honestly,” Pressley told me. “We all thought that we needed to do something better, and agreed we would rewrite the standard in 2019 to address more specific issues, exposures, needs, and interests of a variety of specific animal categories.”

As the committee began developing the 2019 edition, one area of contention for some members—animal activists, as well as fire officials—remained the agricultural sector’s assertion that sprinklers should not be required in its facilities, some of which contained millions of animals. Early in the process, technical committee member Michael Formica, of the National Pork Producers Council, along with Pressley invited the committee to tour chicken and pig farms in North Carolina. The point, Pressley said, was to help committee members “understand what these buildings really are and understand why traditional fire protection systems would not be effective in reducing the loss of animal life or significant building damage.”

For example, the average chicken house, Pressley said, is a simple wood structure about 500 feet long by 50 feet wide covered by a sheet metal roof. The concrete floor is covered with several inches of bedding material, on top of which an average of 25,000 chickens—or “broilers,” since they are raised for meat—spend their short lives milling about. Most broiler chickens are raised on small to mid-sized family farms. Contrary to popular belief, the farmers themselves don’t own the chickens; large food processors hire the farmers to raise the chickens, and the companies collect the birds when they’re old enough for slaughter.

Pressley’s argument to the committee was that sprinklers would be of limited value in protecting the lives of birds because “sprinklers are not instantaneous—there can be significant smoke before the first [sprinkler] activates.” Many birds would be fatally overcome by smoke before the first sprinkler activation, Pressley claimed, and more would die from smothering as the chickens instinctively panic and huddle together during the fire. The sprinklers’ value is diminished further because any birds that did survive the blaze would likely be destroyed anyway out of concern that the meat is no longer safe for human consumption, he said. “We can’t be sure whether the animals had been exposed to toxic chemicals [during the fire]. The risk is too high to consumers,” Pressley said, adding that testing each carcass for contaminants is often cost prohibitive for producers. “Sprinklers are effective at what they do, but we don’t believe sprinklers would be a factor in saving [animals]. We believe that fire prevention efforts are more important and effective than fire control efforts to save the lives of the poultry.”

Most committee members, even those who had originally supported what they considered the humane option of sprinklering all animal facilities, were swayed to an extent, Vecchiarelli and Scibetta told me. Ultimately, the committee did not mandate fire sprinklers in agricultural facilities in the final document. Sprinklers are required, however, in animal health care facilities with overnight stays as well as commercial horse facilities larger than 5,000 square feet.

After the field trips, “the tone of the conversations within the group changed,” Vecchiarelli said. “It gave people a better understanding of where the other members were coming from, and it seemed to open people up to having more civil discussions.” Despite the absence of an overarching sprinkler mandate, the new NFPA 150 has generally been well received by animal rights groups and others, Vecchiarelli said.

Animal advocates, however, remain resolute that sprinklers in barns and other agricultural facilities are still the best way to prevent fires and protect animals. In October, the Animal Welfare Institute released a report titled “Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals,” lamenting what it describes as “the sad reality … that hundreds of thousands of animals die from fires every year because of the lack of mandated fire protection in barns and industrial farms.” Installing sprinkler systems is the first recommendation the report lists for addressing the issue. Other recommendations include annual fire department inspections, mandating the use of smoke and CO detectors, fire drills, better employee training, and for municipalities and the animal agriculture industry to adopt and use NFPA 150.

The report’s author, Alicia Prygoski, who served on the NFPA 150 committee, writes that, “while there is room for improvement in NFPA 150, it offers several reasonable suggestions for preventing fires in barns,” and that “implementing the NFPA 150 recommendations could still save thousands of animal lives.”

These kinds of discussions are integral to the standards-making process and led to a much stronger document, even if nobody got exactly what they wanted, Scibetta said.

“Looking back, honestly the best thing that could have happened to the NFPA 150 committee and the document we are responsible for was to have that heated debate on sprinklers back in 2012,” he said. “What it led to was improved representation on the committee. We have voices we didn’t have before, we gained knowledge about concerns we didn’t know existed, and we arrived at solutions we didn’t know were possible.”

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