NFPA Standards: How You Can Shape PPE Technology

By Mike McKenna

There seems to be a perception among some vocal firefighters that the NFPA is the enemy pushing a process designed to make firefighting more difficult. Many of them argue that the NFPA process is a conspiracy of faceless manufacturers who meet in back rooms to create unneeded changes and make firefighters' lives miserable by unnecessarily raising the costs or by over-regulating PPE.

Many firefighters also believe that the fire service has little or no input in the decision-making process and that the NFPA standards are created to enhance profit lines. While these assumptions are all inaccurate, it is fair to say that it's a process that is always starving for intelligent firefighter input — and that's where you come in.

Admittedly, the NFPA process is open to everyone to participate in — manufacturers and organizations included — with the main aim being to enhance the fire service. It's something that spins in the background of our profession like a computer operating system, constantly revising and modernizing performance standards for personal protective equipment.

Definitive voice
The fire service, however, does have the definitive loud and clear voice in the NFPA PPE project. A significant cross section of experience and expertise within the fire service is represented. This ranges from the largest municipal fire departments to volunteers to firefighter-related organizations, including a significant presence of the IAFF.

Contrary to some opinions, the fire service representatives that are involved in the NFPA process don't presume they have all the answers. Rather, they are dedicated fire service professionals that volunteer their time to participate in the process.

I have been involved in the NFPA process for many years, and I have found the process to be uniquely open, closed, misunderstood, and in some cases ignored by firefighters.

Any properly submitted proposal will work its way to the technical committee, and it will be discussed, debated, and considered on its merits. Unless one actually spends the time and money to attend a technical committee meeting, it is impossible to accurately describe the staggering amount of work — often tedious — that is involved and all that is accomplished over a five-year revision process by a handful of people.

NFPA Standards open for comments in the Fire and Emergency Services Project

The addition of the Drag Rescue Device is a great example of firefighter involvement. It was based on a proposal from firefighters outside the technical committee who saw a need after the LODD in 2001 of Bret Tarver, the Phoenix firefighter who become trapped in debris and then disorientated during a fire at a supermarket.

Why 'closed?'
How is the system "closed?" Well, only in as much as it does take effort to look up the opening and closing dates for proposals and to submit the paperwork. All of the information is available on the NFPA Web site, but this is not a "path of least resistance" process.

The NFPA process does not often respond well to incomplete proposals or those that are not followed up with a visit to a technical committee meeting. It is unfair to send a proposal, skip the meeting where it was debated, and then trash the NFPA system at the kitchen table because you considered submittal automatic acceptance.

There is also a feeling that many firefighters may be unaware of the topics and how to participate. For example, the NFPA Fire Service Project recently completed the NFPA 1801 Standard of Thermal Imaging cameras. It only received a single public comment from someone from the fire service who was not on the technical committee. That project took roughly five years to complete and was public at all times.

Clearing up misunderstandings
Active participation in the NFPA process is key to clearing up the misunderstandings and becoming informed about the benefits that it provides on behalf of the fire service.

The fire service technical committee members are starving for outside input so that they know that they are moving in the correct direction. It is important to remember that the NFPA process develops minimum performance criteria.

It ensures that items of PPE all meet some minimum level of protection. Product enhancements above that minimum standard are a result of manufacturer ingenuity, market forces and sometimes firefighter input. Firefighters need to become involved in the process.

Every single firefighter who participates makes the system better. Participation makes the fire service safer. NFPA is not the enemy, but an important ally to increase firefighter productivity and safety.

The following Technical Committees in the Fire and Emergency Services Project are looking for fire service members:

  • NFPA 1800 – Electronic Safety Equipment
  • NFPA 1951 – Special Operations Protective Clothing
  • NFPA 1991 – Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing
  • NFPA 1999 – Emergency Medical Services Protective Clothing.

For details on joining one of these committees, e-mail And if you have any general questions regarding this article and the points I've made, please contact me at

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