Author(s): Angelo Verzoni, Jesse Roman, Scott Sutherland. Published on December 17, 2021.

NFPA Journal Editors’ Picks 

As 2021 comes to a close, the NFPA Journal editorial team presents some of its favorite stories that ran during the year. From opinion pieces to reported feature articles, here are our six picks from 2021.


Executive Editor Scott Sutherland’s Picks

Article: “That’s Rich,” Wildfire column 
Issue: Spring 2021
Author: Michele Steinberg

For this reader, there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a well-crafted editorial broadside delivered with a scoop of malice aforethought, which is what Michele Steinberg served up in “That’s Rich,” her wildfire column in the spring issue. Steinberg, director of the Wildfire division at NFPA, took issue with a credulous Financial Times article that catalogued the lengths that the very wealthy are willing to go to in an effort to buffer themselves against natural threats such as climate change and wildfires—measures that include holing up in luxe underground bunkers in South Dakota or decamping to pastoral hideaways in rural New Zealand. In this way, FT posited (apparently with a straight face), the rich will survive, while the rest of us helpless saps will endure a Darwinian struggle for survival. “What a bunch of malarkey,” Steinberg observed. 

For a counterpunch, she offered the Montecito (California) Fire Protection District, which had spent 20 years (and not a lot of money) on wildfire preparation that paid enormous benefits in the 2017 Thomas Fire—so much for the helplessness of the unwashed masses. “The reality is that all of us, rich and poor, inhabit the same leaky lifeboat when it comes to the impact of extreme events like wildfires,” Steinberg wrote. “The rich may be able to run, if they choose, but they can’t hide.”

Article: “City in a Coma,” Perspectives 
Issue: Winter 2021
Author: Scott Sutherland / Interviewee: Sawsan Dahham

In the magazine business, sometimes the story you get isn’t the story you planned. When I set up an interview with Sawsan Dahham, a fire and life safety expert in Beirut, for our winter issue “Perspectives,” I thought our focus would be the large projects she’s worked on across the Middle East, everything from palaces to stadiums to an expansion of the Grand Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. We talked about all of that, and then I asked her what it was like to live in Beirut—and that’s when the conversation really started. 

Watch a related NFPA Journal video about the August 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion in the port of Beirut

It was a little more than a year after a devastating ammonium nitrate explosion in the city had killed hundreds, damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings, and left an estimated 300,000 homeless. Beirut continued to reel from the aftershocks, along with the effects of a crippling financial crisis and a government hamstrung by infighting and corruption. Sawsan was born and raised in Beirut, and my question prompted a 20-minute outpouring of anger, hope, indignation, and despair over her beloved home and the prospects of rebuilding it. It also contained an articulation of the practical resilience assumed by people who know that help isn’t coming and that it’s up to them to fix the problems. “It’s as if the city is in a coma,” she said. “I travel a lot around the Middle East, and when I see the amount of change taking place in those societies, and of the implementation of safety and security, of codes and requirements, I think, ‘What happened to us?’”

Senior Editor Jesse Roman’s Picks

Article: “Weak Spots,” cover story 
Issue: Spring 2021 
Author: Jesse Roman 

In the spring, I wrote the feature story, “Weak Spots,” which explored the emerging threat of cyberattacks on our increasingly web-connected infrastructure. It’s well known that shadowy cybercriminals are now launching devastating attacks on corporations, factories, hospitals, households, and even vehicles from the comfort of their desk chairs. The lesser-known irony is they are doing so by targeting the smart systems and devices that were intended to make our buildings safer and our lives easier. 

Listen to a related NFPA Podcast episode on cybersecurity

I wrote in the story that today’s buildings “can contain thousands of smart, interconnected devices and systems, many ripe for attack, including sprinkler and fire alarms, HVAC systems, security cameras, elevators, badge systems, parking ticket machines, automatic door locks, and many more. Once a hacker breaks into, say, a fire alarm system of a large corporation, he often needs only to follow the digital pathways that connect systems to reach the critical databases that companies pay dearly to defend.”

The effort to harden these new systems against attack is still in its relative infancy. For the story, I spoke with cybersecurity researchers and experts, insurers, fire systems specialists, and even an experienced hacker to find out the extent of these vulnerabilities and learn more about the work being done at NFPA and elsewhere to try and outmaneuver cybercriminals. It is a difficult and critical problem in today’s digital age, and one that every facility manager in the world should be keeping tabs on. I think you can learn a lot about where to start by reading the article.

Article: “Learning from Surprise,” feature story 
Issue: Fall 2021 
Author: Jesse Roman 

The second piece I want to highlight from 2021 is called “Learning from Surprise” and focuses on another kind of ubiquitous emerging technology: energy storage systems (ESS). Large batteries are now being installed at a rapid pace across the world as we try and harness the power of renewables and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. While most everyone agrees this is a good thing, like any new technology it comes with a learning curve and some unique hazards for first responders—especially when something goes seriously wrong. 

Listen to a related NFPA Podcast episode on the Surprise, AZ, ESS explosion

Unfortunately, something went very wrong at a utility-owned energy storage system in Surprise, Arizona, on April 19, 2019. In the late afternoon, the system’s 2-megawatt lithium-ion battery experienced an internal failure called thermal runaway and began spewing noxious gases into the desert. For several hours, firefighters from Peoria and Surprise, Arizona, tried to bring the difficult situation under control when suddenly a massive explosion shook the facility and badly injured four of the firefighters. Over the next year, researchers, fire officials, battery manufacturers, and governmental agencies all launched investigations to find out what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening elsewhere. 

The story in the fall issue of NFPA Journal dug deep into the knowns and unknowns of battery technology, as well as how safety and research has evolved since the Surprise explosion. It included firsthand accounts from the Peoria fire chief, investigators on the scene, an expert who chairs NFPA 855, Standard for the Installation of Stationary energy Storage Systems, and several others. I was proud of the final piece not just because it provides an interesting look at an important burgeoning technology, but also because it shows the vital yet often overlooked work being done by countless groups to ensure that new advancements roll out as safely as possible for our responders and for the public. 

Associate Editor Angelo Verzoni’s Picks

Article: “Preparing for Takeoff,” cover story 
Issue: Fall 2021 
Author: Angelo Verzoni 

Sometimes you just know when a story is going to be fun to report on, and “Preparing for Takeoff” from our fall issue was one of those stories. I mean, c’mon—flying cars! After decades of the American public dreaming of a future full of flying cars, experts say that day is finally on the horizon, with companies around the world currently developing what are known as electrical vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft to be used as flying taxis. One of the biggest challenges to that industry getting off the ground, however, is a lack of design and regulatory guidance for the infrastructure needed for eVTOL aircraft to operate—and that’s where NFPA is poised to play a role. 

Watch a related NFPA Journal video about the burgeoning flying taxi industry

The 2024 edition of NFPA 418, Standard for Heliports, will include an entire chapter on vertiports, facilities where eVTOL aircraft take off and land at. “We really need to put something in writing so that a municipality that wants to embrace this new technology has somewhere to look when determining what standard they’re going to build to,” Rex Alexander, chair of the NFPA 418 technical committee, told me. The story goes on to detail what potential hazards that chapter will cover. I think there’s no better example of how NFPA is a leader in getting ahead of emerging technology than this article.

Article: “Deadly Trend,” Dispatches lead 
Issue: Summer 2021 
Author: Angelo Verzoni

In late 2019, I wrote a story about fire safety in hospitals outside the United States. With little adherence to codes like NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code—codes that have over the years made US hospital fire fatalities nonexistent—many of these facilities, I found out, were ripe for catastrophic fires. Unfortunately, that hypothetical scenario materialized as the COVID-19 pandemic stressed health care systems worldwide. In “Deadly Trend,” the Dispatches lead article from our summer issue, I used a then-recent fire at a COVID hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed more than 80 people, as a jumping off point to further examine the issue. In all, I discovered that at least 190 people had died in hospital fires worldwide from spring 2020 through spring 2021, the first year of the pandemic. Most of these blazes were fueled in large part by the improper storage or use of medical oxygen. 

The article, which was one of the magazine’s most popular of the year, caught the attention of Health Care Facilities Management magazine, and I later found myself quoted in an HFM follow-up to my article. “There have actually been dozens of fires in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients around the world since the pandemic began in the spring of last year, and nearly 200 people have died in those blazes,” I told the magazine. “For the most part, those incidents have occurred in countries where code compliance is often lacking, and they provide a sobering reminder of the critical importance of implementing and adhering to codes and standards in the health care setting.”

So what were your favorite NFPA Journal articles from the past year? Let us know in the comments section! Also, check out our top-five most-clicked articles from 2021 listed below: 

5. Danger of Negligence
4. Learning from Surprise  
3. Battered Batteries 
2. Report: On-Duty Firefighter Fatalities in 2020
1. ‘Totally Vulnerable’