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

Getting It Done

How research topics are submitted and chosen, and how research is then conducted


A common question I’ve heard during my years at the Foundation is how a research need actually becomes a research project. It’s a good question, and the answer often involves a lot of moving parts.

The process generally starts with stakeholders, including NFPA technical committee members, other standards developers, researchers, and industry members coming to the Foundation with a research need. This includes topics that are considered in discussions of codes and standards, emerging issues, or other life-safety challenges. With that information, Foundation staff identifies the specific research objective that will answer this particular need and the steps to achieve that objective. We then work to obtain the needed resources to undertake the project scope that has been developed. This could include approaching industry sponsors or writing a proposal for a grant program.

After resources are secured, a project contractor is chosen to conduct the research project. Along the way, the Foundation relies on a project advisory panel of subject-matter experts to provide feedback and to make sure the project answers the question it set out to answer. The Foundation manages the project until completion of the final report, which is then published on the Foundation website and made available to the public.

A recent example of this process is a literature review that was undertaken on audible alarm signal waking effectiveness. A group of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, stakeholders approached the Foundation with the need to assess the data on waking effectiveness; specifically, they wanted to determine an acceptable reduction in the required sound pressure for sounders using a 520 Hz low-frequency harmonic tone signal that would still provide superior waking effectiveness compared to high-frequency sounders. A lower required sound pressure could reduce the power needed and make this technology more of a reality for single-station smoke alarms. The Foundation approached the fire alarm industry for the needed funding. Once it was in place, a contractor—in this case, Jensen Hughes—was hired to conduct the project.

The resulting report, “Audible Alarm Signal Waking Effectiveness,” published by the Foundation in 2020, indicated “clear evidence that low-frequency harmonic tones can provide equivalent or improved waking performance over traditional high-frequency alarms for both normal and at-risk populations.” The authors found that “a reduction in required sound pressure level could be justified to allow design of battery-operated low-frequency smoke alarms,” and identified the primary research gap as determining “the exact acceptable magnitude for reduction in sound pressure level.” The next step for stakeholders, according to the authors, was to review the data “and determine if and how much of a reduction could be justified.” The findings are being considered as current codes and standards are being updated.

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