Author(s): James Pauley. Published on February 12, 2021.

Under Attack 

The process that NFPA has used for more than a century to develop standards is now threatened by special interests


NFPA’s standards development process is one of the most successful and longest running public-private partnerships. Our first standard, NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, was created in 1896, the year NFPA was founded. The National Electrical Code® of 1897 followed, and today the NEC is the world’s pre-eminent electrical guidance and NFPA’s most-used code. The Life Safety Code® was created in 1913 in the aftermath of the Triangle fire in New York City, where 146 garment workers died. 

Our codes and standards have continued to grow and evolve as we learn from events like Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942, the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, London’s Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, and the 2019 blaze that destroyed much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. We have developed more than 300 health and safety standards that provide benchmarks for electrical systems, fire protection systems, inspections, job performance qualifications, coordinated community response plans, fire tests, and construction, to name just a few. Designers, engineers, trade workers, manufacturers, insurance providers, consumers, regulatory agencies, enforcers, consultants, academics, and emergency responders rely on our guidance to do their jobs successfully.

I am proud of what NFPA has accomplished, but I am also concerned. This system that has fueled our economy, saved government significant resources, and benefitted the entire community in countless ways is under attack. Legal challenges have been mounted by special interests that possess the simplistic and erroneous view that codes and standards should be free. They argue that if any governmental entity decides to incorporate a standard by reference, then the copyright to the entire standard is automatically forfeited. In this vital system, standards developers must retain copyright protection for the system to continue to function.

We know the expense, time, and resources it takes to create standards. While government and other code users recognize that the current process works, there are those who aren’t interested in how that system produces effective codes and standards that protect millions of people around the world every day. They cannot, or will not, acknowledge the huge undertaking required to produce high-quality standards that reflect the latest research, technologies, and learnings from fire and life safety tragedies. They are quick to unjustly condemn the process. Their simple alternative is for SDOs to recoup their costs by doing something else. While we continue to develop new ways to deliver more information and diversify the tools and resources we offer, make no mistake: the cost of conducting this vital work is substantial, and it is critical that we balance those costs through the continued sale of our codes and standards.

My concerns go well beyond revenue. I’m talking about a system that cannot be duplicated without someone else incurring tremendous expense, and without the risk that the end product will be of lesser quality. I’m talking about a system that brings together the best and latest information with the best minds to create these standards, at no cost to government or the public. For more than a century, NFPA and other SDOs have facilitated this process. Millions of people benefit from this work, but very few have appreciated what it takes to make that happen. That lack of understanding must change. Ignorance of what is at stake threatens disaster.

As standards professionals, we are committed to the process. We approach our jobs with the highest integrity. We must rise to this challenge as we have never done before. We need to do more to educate our audiences and support the standards development system. Each of us can play a pivotal role in educating the public by finding creative ways to explain how standards help citizens, workers, and emergency responders. We need to support the standards development system, not for the sake of our own livelihoods, but because the public-private partnership model works and saves lives.

Last year, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “The Joy of Standards: Life is a lot easier when you can plug in to any socket.” The piece espoused the benefits of private, non-governmental organizations facilitating the development of standards that impact everything from the gas we put into our cars to the dimensions of a concrete block. It highlighted how a typical laptop computer incorporates more than 250 standards. As the leader of an SDO, I don’t have to tell you how thrilled I was to see an article like that in the Times.

That’s the kind of understanding we must strive to offer to all of our stakeholders. As NFPA turns 125, we have no intention of slowing down or resting on our laurels. Whether it’s the work we do to safeguard the standards development process or our efforts to serve modern-day practitioners, we will continue to move forward while acting as vocal supporters for the standards-development system. There is too much at stake to do anything less. 

JIM PAULEY is president and CEO of NFPA.