For Any of You Who Complain About NFPA

budget snowplowWe were talking last night on the Weekly Firefighter Hangout about “words that we live by” in the fire service and I was a little surprised not to hear anyone bring up the usual complaints on NFPA and other consensus standards, which seem to get thrown into a big steaming pile together when someone wants to badmouth the fire service. As a participant in the standards process, I get a little frustrated when people complain about standards. Why, you may ask? Well, because while standards may seem to be prohibiting aspects of our jobs, the fact is, standards are necessary to help us define things, to establish our expectations in regard to a certain item, title, or discipline.

In the eyes of some, standards are written to justify large quantities of money being spent to put labels on items. Or standards are written to justify adding unnecessary personnel to apparatus. The real reason most standards are written are to have a yardstick that we can have some objective measurement of a qualification, a product, or a process. If we did not have standards, you might buy a snowplow online and have the item pictured here delivered to you instead.

Individuals in the fire service complain about standards as if these are memos sent from on high by those who have no idea what the job is all about. In fact, the standards are actually written by those who have a vested interest in the job. People like you and I are invited to come sit on committees and working groups to help define these standards, and the committees go to great lengths to ensure balance between users, enforcers, manufacturers, educators, and any other number of interest groups, to act as a check and balance to the accusations that the only people writing standards are those making a buck in the effort.

In our organization I find a lot less complaining about this standard or that standard mostly because we decided a long time ago that if we wanted to see things done a certain way, we would need to get involved in the process. Unlike many people, it seems, our personnel realize that standards get built by people just like them, and from the lowest person on the totem pole to the Chief, anyone has the ability to chime in on drafts of each standard.

The people who tend to complain the most about standards, it appears to me, are the ones we are most likely writing standards to protect our members against. After all, if you are so obtuse as to not understand how a standard comes to be used in the first place, you probably shouldn’t be leading personnel anyway. I see it as the difference between those who say they are professionals and those who actually are.

When you are a child playing in little league football, it’s okay if you don’t know the rules of the game. There are plenty of parents, coaches, refs and others who will loudly point out that you are running the wrong way. When you are an adult and considered to be professional, if you don’t know the rules of the game, you probably should find a different career, if anyone would even take the time to hire you at all.

I’m aware this is going to ruffle some feathers, but you may also be aware that I don’t care if it does. After all, the process is pretty simple and if you can’t take the time to read the proposed standards and comment on them if you don’t like something, then really, why should I care if you don’t like them? And even if something slips by me, if I see a standard that I think is particularly egregious, there is a process to also fight that as well, even if it is committed to writing and had been published. Don’t think that the committees are flawless; my own committee has missed things before, requiring us to seek the various fixes that exist, depending on the severity of the mistake.

If all you can do is complain and never work toward a positive solution, you are simply another voice on the sideline. If you want to be in the game and be a real contributor to the fire service, you need to learn how to play the game.


  • Tree says:

    It’s not the standards – it’s the way they sometimes seem to favor manufacturers vs the greater good… “I’m sorry, but that piece of gear that’s like new because your department doesn’t run a lot of calls is now obsolete because NFPA says it is…”

    • Mike says:

      Sorry. I do not see it that way. Gear/Equipment can age out based on time rather than simple use. Take a simple rubber band. From the box, its nice and stretchy. Let it just sit on your desk for a couple of years, with no use, and the stretch is replaced with brittleness. Our protective gear can do the same things – even sitting on the shelf. Oxygen, ultra-violet lite, ambient background radiation, seams and gravity – they all take a toll on the effectiveness of our gear. Sometimes this deterioration is not detectable through visual and tactile examination to boot. Age criteria try to account for this and they will say its not perfect either.

      How much is you health and safety worth? How about the guys you supervise?

      Nobody ever said this job was cheap and We should be ready to spend the resources to best protect our firefighters. Of course, if you have good evidence that a time frame is not appropriate, such as stating 15 year carbon fiber bottles could go to 20 years, then that is a different matter (and should go to the NFPA/DOT etc).

      • Tree says:

        Carbon fiber air bottles are good for five hydro tests. It’s a performance-based standard. If one of your bottles sits, unnoticed and untested for a year, it’ll come back from the hydro test good for three years, regardless of its age. Even the rubber band “test” is performance based. If it stretches and holds what it’s supposed to hold, it’s good. Age is not a factor as such.

        So it should be with all equipment. If the equipment meets the requirements, it should be acceptable. And it shouldn’t be like many patented items – with the specs of the item changed occasionally so the patent continues in force.

        I value the health and safety of my firefighters. I want them to have the best we can afford (a consideration in and of itself – fuel for the trucks, or new gear because someone decided the current stuff is obsolete).

        But to say that a helmet, f’rinstance, is fine one day, and no good the next is nuts. Sounds like something a lawyer would love…

        • Mike says:

          To some extent I agree – if its possible to objectively test the item, then that is the test. Take carbon fiber bottles. For us, they have a 15 year life span as per the DOT with re-testing done every five years. That is a mixed standard. A heavily used bottle may fail hydro before 15 years and a bottle never used may be junked at 15 years based on regulations.

          The problem with the performance standard is that there are some characteristics that cannot be non-destructively tested on a regular basis to ensure the item is serviceable. When that happens, age based standards are placed. The second part of the age-out standard is to ensure that the majority of items that ‘age-out’ have a little usable life left in them when they retire. This may seem counter intuitive but you want to ensure the item has the best possible chance of being in good condition for its entire life. Without objectively testing available, that means it has to be up to the task the day before retirement and on retirement day, it would then still have life – less you run the risk of have ‘in-service’ gear that was not up to the task.

          Also realize, the date standards are somewhat arbitrary. Its a group of people looking to make the most liberal time frame they can while still ensuring the equipment that is not obviously damaged is still good for a wide variety of materials. (think turnout gear). This time frame also needs to be somewhat simple so its easily and consistently applied. We are talking about our safety equipment here and we need to keep that in mind.
          Now – as new technologies come along, perhaps we can extend the time frame on life span given objective requalification test (that don’t currently exist) and I am quite sure the NFPA would embrace that.

  • Ellen Cosgrove says:

    Thank You! I am very proud to work in the editorial department at NFPA. We take every word, every equation, every fraction, degree, milligram, candela, etc., very seriously. To us, our work is life-saving, and we are proud to be indirectly involved in helping fire fighters save lives.

    • Mick Mayers says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ellen. And those of us on committees certainly appreciate those of you back in Quincy fixing our butchery of the language and turning it into readable material! This is all very challenging, I understand, because you all are editors and not necessarily subject matter experts, so you have to take what we wrote and hope to get our intent translated into something that meets the requirements of “a noun, a verb, and some connective stuff”. So again, thanks for what you do and thanks for your contribution to the process!

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Wow! I stepped away for a few days and didn’t see that I had a few comments. First, thanks. Second, this is the problem in a nutshell and please understand I don’t want it to sound like a rebuttal but as education: “NFPA” doesn’t say ANYTHING. The National Fire Protection Association doesn’t do anything in regard to a standard except take a product created by a committee of persons with an interest and expertise in the subject matter, ensure that the standard they create is consistent with other related standards (correlation), edit it, and publish it. NFPA doesn’t SAY anything; it is the committee, composed of subject matter experts and of people like yourselves that SAYS what should happen.

    Every standard must go through a process of creation, in which the committee members propose standards, hash them out among the committee, and even try those ideas out on people not on the committee, in order to produce a draft. That draft (understand, this is the down and dirty, simplistic version here) is then made public for ANYONE to comment on and to make suggestions for revision.

    You don’t have to be on a committee, a member of NFPA, or even in the fire service to do this. You don’t even have to know what you are talking about (trust me, that does happen from time to time)! Those comments then come back to the committee where they must EACH be discussed and action taken, all a matter of record. After another round of similar revision, the standard must then also be voted on by the NFPA membership.

    NFPA is really just a clearinghouse and a publisher of the standards. They have a significant investment in them, I’ll admit, but they pioneered the concept in our business and therefore, they are the big boy on the block. However, there are other standards out there, or you could, honestly, create your own standard. The point being that while NFPA standards are widely accepted in our industry and because they are a “consensus” standard, held as the documents by which ANSI and OSHA and others look to for certain subjects, they are still not a binding standard – at least by NFPA.

    I agree that sometimes there are standards that seem a little overbearing. However, you’ll not hear me complaining about them unless I took the time to read what was being proposed and make recommendations. Even then, the balance on these committees is such that ramming something through to benefit the manufacturers isn’t going to happen, although it seems like it sometimes, because there are enough people that if they saw that, would scream bloody murder and fight it on the floor of the NFPA General Meeting, as has happened on any number of standards before.

    If you want to get involved, just go to any standard you are interested in changing, find the enclosed proposal form in it, and propose the change. You’d be really surprised at how ONE PERSON can make a proposal that the entire committee says, “Hey, that makes more sense than what we had. Let’s use that!”. It has happened on my own committee and I’m sure it happens on others; we are in the business just like you all are, and we choose to make standards that make sense. But even we can miss something, and I know we have before, and all it took was one person saying, “Wait? Explain this…” for us to realize that something we wrote needed clarification, or the syntax we proposed made it sound like we meant something different than our intent. It’s the English language, and while it is my primary one, and I am a writer, I can butcher it just like any of the rest of you.

    Thank you all though for your comments and hopefully more people will see this article and read it and understand it. YOU are the most important part of the standard making process and we need YOU to help us make better standards. And you can be a rookie firefighter at a one-station department in a one-traffic light town, and you can say something that positively affects the entire fire service if you get involved. THAT is the beauty of a consensus standard.

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