All For One
The value of informed consensus
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010
In 1899, early in NFPA’s history, a "Committee on Tests and Accepted Facts" was appointed to develop "a current memorandum of facts and practices relating to fire protection in matters too miscellaneous for formal rules, yet upon which a majority view…is deemed as contributing to harmony and good practice." Its report was published alongside the minutes of the Association’s third Annual Meeting for review and comment before action at the fourth Annual Meeting.
The committee was obviously well-intentioned, but its report was torn to shreds under polite but persistent questioning at the fourth Annual Meeting. The debate recorded in the 1900 NFPA Proceedings filled nearly 50 pages. Ultimately, the report was referred to the NFPA Executive Committee, where it died a quiet death.
An example of a proposed accepted fact was this statement: "The extinguishing power of a given quantity of water does not greatly differ whether it issues from a sprinkler in coarse or fine drops of spray, but a coarse spray is preferable." When asked if this had been determined by test, the presenter of the document simply noted that it was "the consensus of opinion, that is all." A similar statement lacking substantiation was that "metal tanks are preferred to wooden tanks." More than a century later, the writers would no doubt be surprised to look out over the rooftops of New York City and see the extent to which wooden tanks have actually been preferred to metal tanks in those fire protection applications.
The debate contained a notable statement by a Mr. Wilmerding of the Philadelphia Fire Underwriters Association, in which he summarized the concerns about the report: "I think all these things are very good suggestions to inspectors, but my objection to them is that we are putting them out as accepted facts, and I think we ought to be very careful about doing that. I cannot speak too strongly about it. We will get into trouble, I am sure we will. Opinion will change; a fact never changes. Either the title of this paper is wrong, or else the subject matter treated…in it is wrong."
Mr. Wilmerding’s comments remain valid today. We continue to use NFPA standards developed through a consensus process, but it is a consensus process that, to the extent possible, is expected to rely upon test data and scientific research. Expert judgment is justified in cases where data are not available, but it is at least the consensus judgment of a group that is familiar with the technology and that has been balanced in terms of special interests and viewpoints.
Documents have occasionally arisen to compete with the NFPA consensus sprinkler standards. They often contain some good ideas but have not been subjected to the thorough scrutiny and debate that is expected to take place at the level of the NFPA technical committees. Writers of alternative sprinkler standards should be encouraged to develop appropriate technical substantiation for new ideas and to submit those items for consideration by NFPA technical committees. A truly good idea deserves the broad application that NFPA standards can provide.
There are many advantages to the NFPA consensus standards-development process. Perhaps the most important is that none of us is right all the time.
Individual opinion, no matter how well-intentioned, should never be accepted in lieu of well-informed consensus judgment. The NFPA standards-development process has been crafted over the years to allow well-informed consensus judgment to prevail, and we should all work diligently to preserve that process.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE, is a principal with Hughes Associates and immediate past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee.