Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2019.

Bridging Borders

NFPA's efforts to develop a machine translation platform show promise and progress


Need an NFPA code or standard translated into the language of your choice? How about some public education materials? One day it’ll be as easy as a few clicks on your computer keyboard. At least that’s what NFPA envisions as the future.

For a little over a year, the association has been working on a project to create a machine translation platform similar to Google Translate that could rapidly and accurately translate NFPA documents and other materials into practically any language. During June’s NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio, Texas, NFPA data scientist Mohammed Ayub delivered an education session on the project, including why it’s occurring, and the progress that has been made on it so far.

“We have to do a better job at creating targeted NFPA content and material that can be easily understood and applied,” Ayub told attendees at his talk. “If we really want to become a global advocate in these countries where we drive a lot of interest from a lot of people…we definitely want to try novel ways of communicating our information better.”

Doing one-time human translations on a request basis, Ayub said, simply isn’t practical in a world where citizens and authorities having jurisdiction in one country can be speaking dozens of languages or variations of the same language. “India has more than 28 different languages, each with its own script and dialects,” Ayub said, as an example.

Relying on technology that’s already out there, like Google Translate, isn’t a good option, either. The problem, NFPA Director of Research and Development Joe Gochal explained in April, is that Google “doesn’t really work well with technical language, and NFPA really prides itself on getting into the weeds and being able to accurately explain a lot of technical stuff.”

While examples of how NFPA’s machine translation platform could be used in the future has largely revolved around codes and standards, at least one attendee of Ayub’s C&E talk said he would use such a tool for public education. “We have issues with public education,” said Brian Greer, a fire marshal in Iowa City, Iowa. “We have a 32,000-student university and 10 percent of that population is international. Plus, we have a lot of Sudanese [refugees] in Iowa City.” Greer’s enthusiasm shows there is potential for an NFPA machine translation platform to be used not just abroad, but in the United States as well.

Ayub said that so far, testing of a prototype web platform has been promising, yielding translations far superior to what Google can generate—at least for NFPA’s technical documents. The next steps will be refining the platform’s capability to translate more colloquial phrases, he said.

NFPA is currently looking for volunteers, especially non-English speakers, to become testers of the developing technology. Those interested in participating should contact Joe Gochal.

United Kingdom

‘From nothing to everything’: Official reflects on the 2018 Winter Hill Fire

In the summer of 2018, the Winter Hill Fire swept across rural towns in the central part of the United Kingdom, overwhelming a fire service unaccustomed to fighting wildland blazes and upending the historic trend of large wildfires not happening in the UK. Shaun Walton, a wildfire tactical lead with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), shared his experience responding to last year’s Winter Hill fire during an education session at the NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio, Texas, in June.

“It went from nothing to everything like that,” Walton told attendees of his talk, snapping his fingers. “It flew.” The blaze burned for over 40 days, threatening homes as well as a major telecommunications station, and torching about 4,500 acres—while that’s not a lot by US standards, it was big enough to overwhelm firefighters in the UK. Without the know-how to fight wildfires, what ended up happening, Walton said, was the fire service essentially just kept throwing firefighters and fire engines at the fire. It eventually worked but was a method Walton and other UK fire service officials know isn’t sustainable, especially as the threat of wildfire will loom larger in the UK and elsewhere around the world as time passes.

“We’re accepting that in the UK these wildfires are getting more severe and more frequent, and we’ve got to start adapting not just from a response perspective, but from a prevention and awareness standpoint,” Walton said. “It’s unsustainable to throw 30 fire engines at a fire day after day. We need to make sure we do more prevention…[so that] local authorities and the public are all understanding that risk.”

Begur, Spain

Spain’s Wildfire Prep Day a success

In June, local government and emergency response agencies came together for the first time in Begur, Spain, to deliver wildfire safety messaging to residents as part of the country’s second annual Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. This year, cross-departmental collaboration and the concept of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem took center stage.

Begur is located on the Mediterranean coast, about 70 miles northeast of Barcelona, and faces issues related to dense development, access, and a large summer tourist population. When combined with massive wildfires, which have already started to burn bigger and more frequently throughout the Mediterranean region, these factors can create catastrophic situations.

The Pau Costa Foundation, which works with NFPA on wildfire public education in Spain and the European Union, coordinated June’s Prep Day events, using it as an opportunity to develop agency collaboration as well as introduce the concept of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to the region. Oriol Vilalta, general manager of the foundation, said the most significant accomplishment of the event was connecting individuals who work in wildfire prevention with those who work in suppression, and various government agencies with one another, according to Lucian Deaton, a program manager in NFPA’s Wildfire Division.

“This Ecosystem approach provided a road map for the how, why, and, importantly, who for the wildfire risk reduction outreach in Begur, Spain,” Deaton said. “NFPA appreciated attending the event and seeing firsthand the collaborative work of the local emergency response agencies and governments in creating a more informed public.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images