Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on February 8, 2021.

Going Virtual 

How the Coronavirus pandemic sparked a host of innovations in the NFPA codes and standards development process 

BY JESSE ROMAN

Listen to a podcast from NFPA on how code development and training evolved during the pandemic. 

For two weeks in October 2018, several hundred experts from across the electrical industry gathered at a hotel in San Diego to complete the second draft of the 2020 edition of the National Electrical Code®.

For more than eight hours a day, the hotel’s large conference center buzzed with activity as each of the NEC’s 18 code-making panels met to debate requirements, draft code language, and sift through hundreds of public inputs seeking to revise the 900-plus-page codebook. “For as much work as these meetings are, they are also a lot of fun,” said Barry Chase, a standards lead at NFPA who has attended numerous NEC draft sessions. “A lot of the panel members know each other, and there are receptions and dinners. It’s a great atmosphere.”

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By late 2020, however, all of that felt like a distant memory. This winter, as the code-making panels began work on the 2023 NEC, there were no bustling hotel lobbies, festive receptions, or buffet lunches—just hours and hours spent staring at computer screens as part of virtual meetings. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in its history the NEC draft meeting took place entirely remotely, a process that took nearly 900 hours to complete, stretching from late November to the middle of January.

Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived last winter, NFPA, like organizations across the world, has been forced to rethink its usual practices, often in ways that would have been hard to imagine just months earlier. That has meant temporarily transitioning the development of nearly 300 codes and standards to a fully remote process, including the annual NFPA technical meeting, where standards are debated and voted on. It has also meant finding a way to safely continue NFPA’s popular live classroom training, which hosts thousands of professionals annually on topics ranging from the NEC to sprinkler systems to wildfire mitigation.

While many of the changes are strictly temporary, some of these unplanned experiments have led to new insights and useful efficiencies that may stick around long after the pandemic. What’s undeniable is that the coronavirus interruption has been a learning experience for NFPA and for the thousands of people around the world who are involved in the standards development process.

“It’s definitely made us review the way we do things and to consider more possibilities,” said Chase. “It’s forced us to think differently than we might have otherwise.”

REMOTE PROCESS MEETS ZOOM FATIGUE

Throughout NFPA’s 125 years, the sometimes-arduous work of crafting and revising codes and standards has generally been a face-to-face exercise. For most standards, technical committee members gather for a few days to consider changes to the document in their charge. With approximately 300 NFPA codes and standards and more than 9,000 technical committee volunteers, getting through the series of draft meetings on a set revision schedule can amount to an intricate dance. The sudden global jolt of COVID threw a wrench into the well-oiled mechanism.


For the past 10 months, the NFPA codes and standards development process has taken place entirely over the computer. (Getty Images)

Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for committees to occasionally meet via conference call for pre-draft meetings or for task groups, but the first and second draft meetings were almost exclusively conducted in person. At the beginning of the shutdowns, a few of the committee meetings were temporarily delayed in hopes that the interruption would be relatively short. When it became clear that the pandemic would be a long-term event, NFPA standards development, like much of the rest of the world, went fully remote.

“We had to switch our process practically overnight, so it took some adjustment out of the gate,” said Chris Dubay, the vice president of codes and standards at NFPA. “Both our staff and volunteers had to get familiar with the technology, and we had to figure out what our remote meetings should look like and how they needed to run.”

For instance, nobody knew at first if a virtual committee meeting would take more time or be faster to complete than an in-person meeting. It was unclear if committees would need to meet more often in shorter sessions or keep same schedule. And while it may seem unthinkable now, when the pandemic started many of volunteers had never used video remote conferencing; likewise, committee chairs had to be trained in how to run a meeting over the Internet. To help with that, NFPA staff developed an online training tool to walk volunteers through the videoconferencing program and its features.

The first big challenges on the calendar were first draft meetings for NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®—large documents with multiple committees working on a plethora of issues simultaneously. It became apparent early that the typical three-day sprint with committees meeting eight hours a day was “not really conducive” in a remote setting where “Zoom fatigue” is very real, Chase said. “Committee members are at home and have things pulling them in different directions—they’re not sequestered in a hotel working on the code,” he said. To make it more palatable and productive, subsequent draft meetings on several standards have been broken into working sessions of two to three hours, stretched out over the course of a month.

The NEC, one of NFPA’s largest and most complex documents, has been an exception. The sheer scope of the revision process necessitated a return to a more intensive approach, organizers said. Over a six-week span, all 18 NEC panels were scheduled for a marathon 48-hour session, meeting eight hours a day for six days straight. Even with that aggressive timetable, getting through every panel took a full month longer than the typical in-person draft meeting.

While technical committee members have told NFPA that the remote meetings have been effective and have gone well, many participants are eager to resume in-person meetings as soon as it’s safe to do so. Others, however, prefer the advantages of remote meetings. “I'm not sure participants are ready to say this is the wave of the future, but they're certainly pleasantly surprised with how productive and easy the meetings have gone with the new technology,” Chase said.

After months of experimenting, some pros and cons of the new virtual format have emerged. The biggest advantage, Chase said, is the feeling among NFPA staff liaisons that there has been more engagement from committee members since going remote. Unburdened by the cost and time constraints of travel, more committee members have attended all or at least some of the virtual sessions. Within the sessions, there appears to be an uptick in engagement, Chase said, possibly because some members feel more comfortable speaking in the remote setting than in front of a large group.

In addition, the familiarity that committees have gained with remote meeting technology will also likely benefit the standards development process. For instance, committee chairs may choose to meet remotely in the future, allowing committees to enjoy more flexibility in how they conduct their work.

“I think it's inevitable that the percentage of virtual meetings we run will grow, especially with documents that maybe don't need a long, drawn-out meeting or an in-person touch,” Chase said. “That said, I don't think it will ever entirely take the place of in-person meetings on all of these documents.”

There are also downsides to the new format. During traditional in-person meetings, the myriad side conversations during breaks or over dinner can result in “happy accidents,” Chase said, such as breakthroughs in proposed language that might offer a solution to a hotly debated issue. That kind of organic engagement tends to get lost in the remote setting, Chase said. “So does the process of the members getting to know each other personally, which I think helps committees move forward—it sort of greases the wheels,” he added. “Over time, if this remote approach continues, we might see some drop off on some of that.”

REMOTE TECH SESSION

While NFPA staff and volunteers were working out the kinks of remote meetings in the spring, another significant hurdle loomed on the horizon: the annual NFPA technical meeting. The event, which typically takes place in the concluding days of the NFPA Conference & Expo, is the third step in the standards development process, where members, volunteers, and interested stakeholders gather to debate and vote on Certified Amending Motions (CAMs) to alter language in the code.

As pandemic concerns began to develop, well before the decision to cancel the live event was finalized, discussions were taking place to explore how to maintain this stage of NFPA’s standards development. “The technical meeting is a core element of our standards development process that was essential to preserve,” said Dawn Michele Bellis, NFPA standards council secretary. “Numerous potential options were explored to ensure that the valuable input to the Standards Council from the public and eligible voting NFPA members was not lost in 2020.”

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In the end, the NFPA Standards Council, along with the association’s Board of Directors, approved the Temporary Technical Meeting Convention Rules for 2020, which allowed the meeting to be held electronically. Like traditional technical meetings, proposed motions were filed in advance and certified by the Motions Committee, but live debate was replaced with written debate online. Each day, NFPA staff published a cumulative report, in PDF form, of comments received on the respective CAMs on the technical meeting site. This allowed stakeholders to track the debate and submit comments of support or opposition into the discussion. After two weeks, the comments were closed, and a week-long voting session began. Eligible NFPA members who had registered were allowed vote on each motion. Despite taking three weeks, the process was generally regarded as a success.

Much like the remote committee meetings, observers noted that the electronic technical meeting provided a platform for more voices to contribute to the process. “It became evident early in the debate that we had a number of people who were participating in the meeting debate for the first time,” Bellis said. “Some stakeholders either don’t have the opportunity to travel to the live events, or they choose not to speak in front of a crowd in response to other points offered during debate. The electronic format opens the door to their participation, and the added breadth of perspectives represented in the debate can only strengthen NFPA’s standards.”

With the future uncertain due to COVID, NFPA announced in January that the 2021 Conference & Expo, including the annual technical meeting, will again be held electronically rather than in person. Organizers say the format for the 2021 technical meeting will be essentially the same as last year, but with a few added features to enhance the experience for participants before and during the event. Bellis said that tutorials and guidance for participation are being developed for launch well in advance of the technical session. While specific changes have not yet been finalized, she said, the 2021 meeting, like last year, will use "alternative procedures" so that standards with CAMs for both fall 2020 and annual 2021 revision cycles can be processed by the Standards Council, with input from the public and eligible voting NFPA members.

Once the pandemic is in the rear view, the plan is to return to in-person technical meetings, which had been the norm for over a century. However, lessons learned from these unprecedented electronic meetings will likely inform future technical meetings in some capacity. They could lead, for instance, to a hybrid approach, where members can debate motions in an electronic forum and follow that with live debate as part of the in-person meeting. That option could allow for more voices to be heard and reduce the time necessary to complete the live technical session.

All of that is still speculation. The Standards Council will look at the lessons learned from the 2020 and 2021 technical meetings and decide what, if anything, to carry forward once the in-person meetings return.

“COVID threw us for a loop, but we learned a lot along the way,” Dubay said. “All things considered, I think we’re in a better position now than we were before. I don’t anticipate that we’ll ever get rid of in-person meetings, but our volunteer committees now have more tools going forward to accomplish our standards-development goals.” 

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor at NFPA Journal.