THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN, PART 2
Firefighters acknowledge that the NFPA over the years has played an important role in increasing fire safety; the issue, many say, is whether it has remained on course as a viable, effective, and responsive agent for the development of fire codes and standards, and if not, what can be done to change. If the fire service is the all-purpose fire/life safety organization that it should be, with a vested interest in fire prevention/protection, then the majority of the 280 codes and standards have either an immediate or probable impact on it; that in itself justifies fire service review of the code system.
It is time for hard questions and tough decisions, both for firefighters and for the NFPA. Firefighters must elect to take a more active role in deciding and defining vital issues that shape the future fire service. The NFPA must decide whether it wants to be more responsive to a firefighter group that accounts for a big chunk of its S»2 million budget and to date represents one-fourth Of its dues-paying membership.
l’lie NFPA must acknowledge that, while some committed firefighters have entered into and contributed to the codemaking process, a great number of firefighters have no sense of ownership of the process and are discouraged from participating by the system. Many feel that their main value in the process is as consumer, both of NFPA published materials and NFPA-approved products. The NFPA must account for a record that has alienated many firefighters. It simply is not enough to bask in the glow of what some maintain is the greatest consensus code system in the world and let it go at that.
Consider the following:
- Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA) recently called a moratorium on code changes for the next year. The reason, according to BOCA President Joseph Bertoni, is “to provide a breathing spell, during which time we may obtain input from throughout the membership on possible ways to fine-tune the code-change process.” Bertoni hopes that the moratorium “will lead to better-thought-out code-change proposals—-and fewer and better code changes.” Suggestion: take a deep breath. Fstablish an impartial task force, reporting ditvctly to the NFPA president, to take afresh look at the codes and standards process and /.tote it can better serve members and the millions of non members regulated by the codes. Publish the results of this study for public review.
- Of the 12 steps leading to publication of an NFPA technical committee document, five are open to public comment. Six arcopen to at-large membership. Suggestion: Firefighters, pick up a (ten and express your concents and opinions to the NFPA. become an influence in the code process.
- Numerous NFPA codes and standards, such as the recently greatly expanded NFPA 1, Fire Prevention Code, are in direct competition with other national model fire/prevention codes. And the membership pays for that duplication of effort. Suggestion.: Eliminate code redundancy, and begin with tlx3 NFPA. The NFPA should not establish new codes standards, and should drop existing standards, that already are covert’d by other national code-making organizations.
- Suggestion. Firefighters who belong to fire service organizations should urge these groups to develop strategies to increase member participation in the codes-and-standards process.
- Should the fire service be restricted in the number of members it can send to the voting meetings? Suggestion: Change the voting procedure to allow all members to vote longdistance, by mail.
- Some corporate members derive considerable financial benefit from the standards. Suggestion: Raise corporate membership dues and establish a general firefighter membership fund that would provide stipends to assist both firefighters serving on technical committees and representatives of every fire department in attending voting meetings.
- The NFPA commandeered proposed, unprecedented discussions between the wood products industry and several independent fire service leaders (see Hditor’s Opinion, Fire Engineering, March 1991), turned it into a “literature search” on the fire behavior of engineered lightweight construction, and now is marketing the results for S50 a copy—this, after the wood products industry already had sunk S60.000 into the project. And that’s just the first step in capitalizing on the project. Suggestion: The NFPA. as a nonprofit organization, should temper its aggressive marketing strategy that calls for markup of published materials sold to firefighters. Materials should be made a vai!(dole to firefighters at or close to cost. If not, transfer part of the profit into the firefighter membership fund.
- A high-ranking NFPA official informed a concerned firefighter that the NFPA does not seek federal subsidies as an indirect way to supplement increased firefighter participation because such a move would compromise its much-vaunted autonomy (my words). Suggestion: Seek grants that will increase firefighters’ activity in the NFPA and make the NFPA stronger by virtue of their participation.
- On numerous occasions, the NFPA has strayed from its mission and changed language in its standards under pressure from nonfire groups. It has wilted under the threat of lawsuits. It has accepted grants from nonfire-safety agencies for studies that are not in sync with its mission. At times, the concerns of the fire community and the NFPA have been at odds. The Standards Council— 13 individuals chosen by the Board of Directors—has overruled the majority membership vote on more than one occasion. For example: Based on irrefutable tests and backed by fire service, fire protection, and insurance groups, the NFPA membership voted to ban storage of Class II (combustible) liquids in plastic containers in general-storage warehouses (NFPA 30). In the face of legal pressure applied by the Society of Plastics Industry, the Standards Council overturned the membership vote. Suggestion: Reform the NFPA’s propensity for straying from its primary mission, “the safeguarding of people, their property, and the environment from destructive fire. ” Decrease the influence of nonfire-safety groups on fire-safety issues. There’s only room for one special interest—life safety—and politics must not supersede it. Lessen the absolute power of the Hoard-appointed Standards Council. Increase the number of firefighters on the Standards Council: At present, only one council member holds a position that reflects specific representation of fire department interests.
- In 1988 and 1989, the NFPA forked over SI million—close to what firefighters paid in membership dues—to the law firm of Daniel J. Pillero II, who posthumously was linked to pastpresident Robert W. (.rant’s alleged embezzlement and whose influence in the NFPA, it was reported, exceeded the normal bounds of an attorney-client relationship. Suggestion: The NFPA must he more responsible with the member and nonmember dollars it brings in. Members deserve a full accounting of NFPA activities, in good times and bad. Members deserve to know what their dues and fees are paying for. The NFPA is not a secret club —it is a nonprofit association organized strictly for fire/life safety, period.
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These are just a few suggestions. Complaints come cheap. Actions are what count. How will you act? What steps will you take to change for the better? The fire service, if it chooses to become more proactive, has two options: Hither work within the NFPA to improve the system and keep it on a life-safety course, or pull away altogether and establish its own firefighter/fire service codes and codes system. The latter option is a numbing thought.
\ hat’s your stance? Where do we go from here? I’m looking forward to your comments.