Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 1, 2019.

Small Steps Matter

After more than 30 years in safety research, the head of the Fire Protection Research Foundation bids adieu


Much like the research process itself, a career is a journey more than a destination—there are successes, setbacks, ups and downs, and more than a few unexpected twists along the way. At the close of this year, my own journey is heading in a new direction: I will be retiring from my post as executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation after more than three decades immersed in safety research.

It’s bittersweet to close this chapter of my life, but as I reach the end of my time at NFPA, I can’t help but reflect on what we’ve accomplished since I joined the organization in 1988. When I consider this and the numerous projects we’ve shepherded through the decades, one big lesson emerges clearer than ever: small steps matter.

NFPA and the Research Foundation are focused on what’s called “applied research,” where the goal is to solve tangible, real-world questions. Achieving genuinely relevant goals in the field of applied research usually requires many incremental advances, and the deliverables are often difficult to see in the short-term. The fruits of our labor become obvious only with the passage of time.

A good example is the Fire Service Respiratory Exposure Study that we completed in 2007. Back then, concerns about firefighter cancer and other health impacts from on-the-job exposure to carcinogens received nowhere near the attention they do today. Even so, it was undeniable that exposure over long periods was making people sick. With such a huge issue, we needed something that would at least start the conversation.

To do that, we pulled together the background information that existed, such as previous research and a selection of current fire department operating guidelines for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and put it in a report. This small effort laid important groundwork. It identified the stakeholders, brought more exposure to the problem, and ultimately led to the design and implementation of subsequent projects, as well as the funding necessary for them to proceed. Today, we have multiple major efforts underway, including a collaborative 30-year firefighter cancer cohort study to find out how exposures over a career affect health outcomes. The deliverables from these activities promise to have a monumental impact on firefighter health, and it all started in part from a short literature review.

These lessons are important to keep in mind as we gaze into a hazy future. The world, it seems, is on the cusp of a new era as we transition from the digital age to the information age, but the Foundation, which has always had a unique ability to address emerging issues around the world, will be ready. We have an array of diverse partnerships, including 75 academic institutions across 17 countries. As of this writing, we have 59 active research projects, including key global topics such as energy storage systems; inspection, testing, and maintenance data exchange; cybersecurity; the fire protection performance of replacement foams; and many others. In reality, however, the list is without end; as we clarify some issues, other thorny topics inevitably emerge to take their place.

I leave NFPA and the Research Foundation with supreme optimism that we are on the right path and heading toward a better tomorrow. Every time a project comes to a close and another begins, we are collectively turning the page from the great work of the past to the challenges of tomorrow. As this cycle continues, we should take a moment now and then to pause, reflect, and acknowledge the positive influence we have on our world. There is no greater reward. 

Casey Grant is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler