Author(s): Amanda Kimball. Published on February 2, 2022.

Research Driven

As it marks its 40th anniversary, the Fire Protection Research Foundation faces an imposing array of global research challenges. Amanda Kimball, the Foundation’s executive director, considers the group’s accomplishments and impact so far while planning an ambitious research road map for the next 40 years.


When I arrived at the Fire Protection Research Foundation as a research project manager 10 years ago, I wasn’t very familiar with its history. But I knew I wanted to be part of something that sounded exciting and on the cutting edge of fire and life safety research.

At that time, the Foundation’s research portfolio included activities related to hazards of composite intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), residential fire sprinkler water usage, hazards of lithium-ion batteries, home cooking fires, high volume/low speed fans and sprinkler operation, wildfire risk, and a handful of other diverse and timely topics. The diversity of the research portfolio and the knowledge that I could play a role in improving safety around the world drew me in. A decade later, I’m the Foundation’s executive director, responsible for leading research initiatives on fire protection, emergency response, and virtually everything that challenges safety in the built environment. We deliver research results by collaborating with project sponsors, project contractors, and advisory panel members. The variety of work we do, along with the potential life-saving impact of those efforts, continue to make my Foundation experience as exciting as it was when I first walked through NFPA’s doors.

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This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the research foundation, a milestone that acknowledges our history of important contributions to fire safety research while positioning us for more breakthroughs to come. In 1982, NFPA established the Fire Protection Research Foundation to address a growing need for research to better inform NFPA’s body of codes and standards. Its first project resulted in a report, “Field Test of a Retrofit Sprinkler System,” which was published in 1983 in response to several deadly hotel fires in the early 1980s. Two of those fires occurred within two weeks of each other in late 1980: the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino blaze in Las Vegas, which killed 78 guests and seven employees, and the fire that tore through the Stouffer’s Inn in Harrison, New York, killing 26 people. The research detailed in our report helped achieve wide acceptance of plastic piping for hotel fire sprinkler retrofits. That inaugural report is included in a comprehensive library of Foundation research reports—more than 370 so far—available to the public at

Since then, the Foundation has facilitated major research projects across a wide variety of topics to address challenges in fire and electrical safety. Much of the Foundation’s research has led to changes in NFPA’s codes and standards and beyond, including product listing standards, fire test standards, and building codes. We will need to draw on that same creativity and rigor to address a host of pressing safety issues that we face now and in the future. Electric vehicle (EV) safety, for example, is a critical concern of the fire service and other safety advocates; the Biden Administration has said that it wants half of all vehicles sold in the United States to be hybrid or electric plug-in by 2030, an ambitious plan that raises questions related to fighting EV fires and managing safety considerations for a nationwide network of electrical charging stations. Similarly, the expanding use of energy storage systems—technology that stores electricity for use in everything from single-family homes to industrial facilities to entire cities—comes with an assortment of safety questions. So do green buildings, new-generation ultra-high-rises, and cities in developing nations around the world that are primed for population booms and unprecedented expansions of the built environment. As our communities become denser, crowd safety becomes a more important concern. So too does creating safer, more resilient buildings in wildfire-prone regions around the world. Climate change, meanwhile, is forcing us to face difficult challenges related to planning, construction, and sustainability, issues that the research community can help illuminate in partnership with industry, academia, and governments.

It’s easy to imagine the Foundation at the center of these efforts for the next 40 years, and well beyond. For me and my colleagues, and for anyone else contributing to the effort to better understand and address these issues, the challenge isn’t finding topics worthy of research—it’s determining how to allocate our resources so that our work has the greatest global benefit for the greatest number of people.

Collaboration and partnerships 

Forty years ago, NFPA created the research foundation with the mission of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of fire protection systems and safety messaging for the benefit of the public and workers. Today, the Foundation continues to be guided by these core principles, but with a broader research portfolio to address emerging hazards, technology, and global needs. The Foundation operates as a separate organization, with its own board of trustees and a team of five that manages 40 to 50 activities at any given time. The Foundation is a research facilitator, which means that we identify research needs, attain the resources needed for the project, find a research partner to do the work (since we do not have the lab or staff to undertake the research on our own), manage the project and the project advisory panel, and then publish and communicate the final results. We undertake our projects with research partners around the world, including universities, engineering consulting companies, fire laboratories, and subject-matter experts.

In 2008, NFPA established a $6 million endowment for the Foundation, which provides a stable way to fund a portion of the operating expenses and ensures that the Foundation can continue to conduct independent and credible research. The remainder of the operating expenses for the Foundation come in the form of management fees from industry consortia-funded projects, direct labor rates for grant-funded projects, fees for Foundation symposia, sponsorship of webinars, and occasional projects that the Foundation staff directly conducts. NFPA itself is also a sponsor of the Research Fund initiative as well as other research projects that are of interest to the association.

The first project undertaken by the Fire Protection Research Foundation was conducted in response to a string of deadly hotel fires in the early 1980s, including the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino blaze in Las Vegas in 1980 that killed 85 people. The findings of the project’s report, which was published in 1983, helped achieve widespread acceptance of plastic piping for hotel fire sprinkler retrofits.  GETTY IMAGES

Three years after its $6 million moment, I arrived at the Foundation as a project manager. My path to the research world hadn’t exactly been a straight one; it began when I was an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), studying civil engineering. At WPI I stumbled upon fire protection engineering, a completely new field for me, and the more I learned about it and the fascinating career opportunities it held, the more excited I became. I entered WPI’s five-year BS/MS program in fire protection engineering, and after graduation I spent several years in a consulting role at Arup. I was able to work on a diverse portfolio of projects including building code life safety analyses, design of fire protection systems, and fire and egress modeling of buildings and subway stations. Then I saw a posting for a project manager position at the research foundation, which I joined in 2011. When Casey Grant retired as the Foundation’s executive director at the end of 2019, I had eight years of experience at the Foundation managing research programs and initiatives. I was picked as Casey’s successor.

A common theme of the research conducted by the Foundation is the importance of its partnerships. One key partnership over the past few years is the Foundation’s Property Insurance Research Group, or PIRG. This group of property insurers has collaborated to complete more than 30 projects, from small literature reviews to large fire-testing programs, intended to inform updates to codes and standards as well as best practices for fire safety in large commercial buildings, such as warehouses and manufacturing facilities. This group started with a research project in 2009 on high volume/low speed fans, which were being increasingly used in storage and manufacturing facilities. There were concerns about their impact on automatic sprinkler performance, so the project, as well as PIRG, were created to develop guidance on the issue. The results of this test program resulted in requirements and guidance in NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Since then, the group has participated in projects on mass timber, sloped ceilings in storage facilities, early suppression fast response sprinklers and obstructions, hazards of IBCs and lithium-ion batteries, and many other topics. Much of this research has been used to develop requirements in NFPA codes and standards as well as for best practices to reduce risk.

The Foundation also collaborates with NFPA on research activities, some of which are used to help develop training programs on emerging issues for emergency responders, including electric vehicles (EVs), energy storage systems, and flammable refrigerants. Emergency responders are accustomed to conventional vehicle fires, but by 2013 a number of questions had arisen over how to respond to fires involving EVs. In particular, responders were seeking guidance for the safe handling of EV batteries during fires and other emergencies. A collaboration was formed between NFPA, the Foundation, the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation to conduct research to develop best practices for emergency response to incidents involving EV battery hazards. The information gathered through full-scale testing was used to inform NFPA’s alternative fuel vehicle safety training for emergency responders, which has reached more than 250,000 first and second responders around the world.

Similar collaborations have resulted in advancements to home fire safety, a critical area for reducing the nation’s fire deaths and injuries. A recent NFPA report, “Smoke Alarms in US Home Fires,” found that almost three out of five home fire deaths were caused by fires in properties with no smoke alarms. Further, the data shows that the death rate per 1,000 home structure fires is 55 percent lower in homes with working smoke alarms than in homes with no alarms or alarms that fail to operate. Clearly, the presence of working smoke alarms is a critical piece of the safety equation.

So is the effectiveness of those alarms. An important factor in residential fire risk is the contents of modern homes, especially furniture. Residential furnishings have changed significantly over time, and the foams and other synthetic materials used in new-generation furniture result in a much greater hazard than the furnishings of 40 years ago. An interior home fire that once took more than 20 minutes to reach flashover can now attain the same conditions in under four minutes. With escape times so limited, smoke alarm performance is critical.

With this urgency in mind, in 2004 the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a study, “Performance of Home Smoke Alarms: Analysis of the Response of Several Available Technologies in Residential Fire Settings.” The project demonstrated that, while the smoke alarms worked, there was less available safe egress time compared to a study from the 1970s conducted with older-style furniture. The NIST study also concluded that the performance of smoke alarms could be more effectively evaluated if there were better data on combustibility and smoke characteristics. The Foundation undertook a smoke alarm characterization project to collect data, which it made available to the public, on current products used in residential settings. That work led to new listing tests in UL 217, Standard for Smoke Alarms, and UL 268, Standard for Smoke Detector Systems.

In 2007, a project was conducted through a collaboration with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and industry stakeholders to investigate a range of products and chemistries commonly found in today’s residential settings. The goal was to characterize the products of flaming and non-flaming combustion more fully to inform the needs of smoke-sensing technology for the contents of modern residences. The results from this project and subsequent research led to the current requirements in UL 217 and UL 268.

Future work: energy, urbanization, climate

There is no shortage of research needs related to fire and electrical safety. With our small staff at the Foundation, it is not possible to address them all, but we try to identify those topics of greatest interest to our stakeholders by working with them to prioritize the research that best aligns with the Foundation’s mission. We also evaluate potential research topics on the magnitude of the safety problem, their level of interest to the industry, and the urgency of the problem. Topics that do not necessarily make the cut the first time may be reconsidered later or communicated to other research entities that might be better able to address them.

A number of recent Fire Protection Research Foundation efforts have focused on safety issues surrounding the rapidly expanding field of energy storage, from electric vehicles to this utility-scale energy storage system facility in California.  GETTY IMAGES

Over the next four decades, I see the Foundation continuing to do the same type of high-quality research it has conducted over the past 40 years. We will continue to address emerging issues and life safety challenges to reduce risk. The Foundation will need to evolve to continue to produce impactful and relevant research in an ever-changing world. We will seek to work with new partners globally and from other industries, as sponsors, researchers, and subject-matter experts. This will lead to work that has a higher global impact and increase recognition of fire protection among other industries.

With those objectives in mind, hazards related to new forms of energy and energy-efficient technologies will continue make up a significant portion of the Foundation’s portfolio. There are still many unanswered questions around protection of energy storage systems, response to EV fires, the hazards of stranded energy, protection of photovoltaic arrays, mitigating hazards from green technologies such as combustible insulation in buildings, and the safety of lithium-ion batteries in consumer goods. The Foundation continues to conduct research designed to inform guidance on these issues as well as many others. The constantly changing landscape of evolving energy technologies will keep the Foundation and other research entities busy well into the future.

Another current topic of great interest to the fire service is the use of fluorine-free firefighting foams. Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) has been used by the fire service for decades for applications such as flammable liquid pool fires and other tough-to-fight fires. AFFF, however, has been shown to have negative impacts on the environment as well as on the long-term health of firefighters, and as a result it is being phased out and replaced with alternatives. The Foundation has undertaken research efforts aimed at developing best practices for the operations and handling of new-generation firefighting foam, work that provides an important input into a broader effort to improve the long-term health and safety of emergency responders.

The future promises an array of complex technical challenges for us to address, many of them driven by social and demographic changes on a global scale. A recent NFPA Journal article, “Ultra Urban” (, highlighted the need to consider the movement of large populations to cities in low- and middle-income countries in the decades to come. Based on numbers from the United Nations, 55 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, a figure projected to grow to 68 percent by 2050. This equates to 2.5 billion people being added to the world’s cities, with an estimated 90 percent of that growth occurring in the urban areas of Africa and Asia. What all of this means is that, among other things, a vast amount of new construction will need to be undertaken for these populations to live and work in, and it will need to be done safely and efficiently—processes that can be informed by contributions from the global research community.

Now is the time for that global community to work together to have safety recognized as a critical need for this new built environment. That effort faces a number of significant challenges, including poverty. Resources in many developing nations can be desperately scarce, and when basic needs such as shelter and food are difficult to come by for large segments of the population, concerns like fire safety in buildings are simply not on the radar. It’s that condition that results in impoverished populations bearing the bulk of the world’s fire burden; according to the World Bank, an estimated 180,000 fire deaths occur worldwide each year, and 95 percent of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. That’s why an important part of my work going forward will be to help the Foundation map out a more effective way to scale its existing research portfolio, along with new research efforts, to address these specific issues in developing nations and to conduct them in a sustainable way. It may not be realistic to expect many of these nations to utilize the latest safety technologies or practices, but numerous opportunities remain to reduce the risk of fire faced by these vulnerable populations.

The intense urbanization predicted for this century, especially in low- and middle-income nations—as exemplified by Lagos, Nigeria (above), one of the world’s fastest-growing cities—will create urgent research needs. “Now is the time for the global research community to work together to have safety recognized as a critical need for this new built environment,” Kimball writes.  GETTY IMAGES

Extending over many of these issues is the impact of climate change, a multifaceted challenge that directly or indirectly will require significant research resources in the future. In the built environment, for example, efforts to create structures that we consider “sustainable” have resulted in the emergence of significant safety hazards. Consider the use of insulated exterior wall assemblies, applied to buildings around the world to help improve their energy efficiency. The improper application of these assemblies, with their highly combustible layers of foam insulation, have led to many large fires around the world, notably the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017. The fire began inside the 24-story apartment building, moved to the outside of the structure, then raced up and around the entire tower, fueled by the combustible insulation of the exterior wall assemblies. The fire killed 72 people and injured scores. As Grenfell graphically illustrated, fire safety should be a major component of a holistic approach to building design. A 2020 Foundation report, “Fire Safety Challenges of Green Buildings and Attributes,” found that while there have been fire safety advancements in the sustainable attributes in buildings, much work remains to be done, including the improvement of assessment tools and a more aggressive transition to holistic approaches for regulation and design of such buildings. There is also work to be done to make test methods more robust to consider the overall system approach.

Climate change is also a critical factor in the increased prevalence of wildfire around the world, specifically the impact of fires in the wildland/urban interface, or WUI. “Preparing for Disaster: Workshop on Advancing WUI Resilience,” a Foundation event held in early 2020, outlined several research needs to address the challenges associated with WUI fires. These included prioritizing evacuation and notification in research activities, standardizing quantification and visualization of risk, improving test methods for construction materials and assemblies, modeling fires from wildland to buildings, understanding the impact of wildfire smoke on public health, improving data collection efforts, and improving WUI research infrastructure in the US. As that list suggests, this is a heavy lift that will require the collaboration of many different groups, including the Foundation, working together to meet these needs.

As we have always done, the Foundation will leverage its partnerships to help answer many of these questions in the years to come. Our partners are our biggest strength, and we would not have had the impact that we’ve had over the past four decades without them. As those partnerships evolve, and as we develop new collaborations with partners around the world, the aim of the Foundation will be the same as it was on day one: to conduct research that helps reduce risk for as many people as possible.

AMANDA KIMBALL is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top photograph: Getty Images/NFPA