Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 3, 2014.

New NFPA documents address issues of data development, storage, and exchange

WHILE MANY TOUT THE POTENTIAL of the emerging smart firefighting technologies, there is still a lot of work to do behind the scenes before those technologies become pervasive.

“That’s an area where NFPA as a codes and standards developer can help tremendously,” said Anthony Hamins, the chief of the Fire Research Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST. “NFPA has a very important role by developing standardized formats, protocols, and data types.”

That work is already underway. If there are no objections from the NFPA Standards Council, a new standard, NFPA 950, Data Development and Exchange for the Fire Service, will make its print debut this November. Its companion, NFPA 951, Guide to Building and Utilizing Digital Information, is slated for release in November 2015.

“I think these NFPA documents are a big deal,” said Casey Grant, research director at the Fire Protection Research Foundation. “I think in the next few years we will see these sleepy little documents take off, because this is where the world is headed. The technical committee for NFPA 950/951 is really setting some of the basic startup metrics for the whole topic area.”

As with any new and rapidly changing industry, a lack of uniformity can create big problems, or at least slow potential advancements. The new documents will address that issue and “provide a standard framework for the development, management, and sharing of data for all-hazards response agencies and organizations,” according to Chapter 1 of the proposed NFPA 950 standard.

“There are manufacturers developing radios that give off the users’ geo location, devices in clothing that can monitor a firefighter’s vitals, locators around buildings that can literally draw the building’s layout,” said Christopher Farrell, the NFPA staff liaison for NFPA 950 and NFPA 951. “The only thing that is slowing us down is that all the different technologies are written in different languages and on different platforms. Some devices talk to each other easily, some don’t. Integrating these different technologies will enable firefighters to get information in real time. It could be like the Tower of Babel if we don’t get out ahead of it.”

The first edition of NFPA 950 consists of six short chapters containing relatively basic, but important, information. Topics include requirements for departments to develop data policies, plans for backing up key data, and provisions on how to properly format data entries.

“It’s starting with just high-level stuff—the next iteration will have more concentrated material,” Farrell said. “We’re building a box, and what goes inside that box is yet to be determined. This is a great example of us being ahead of the game.”

The push to develop NFPA 950 began in 2008 when a new project request went before the NFPA Standards Council. Once approved, it took a while for Farrell and others to identify potential technical committee members, because the standard “is a whole new area for NFPA,” Farrell said. He went to trade shows to meet people who straddle the fire service and technology worlds, he said, because at the moment “they don’t know us and we don’t know them.”

As a result, most of the 20-plus committee members—which include fire department technology experts, consultants, professors, data professionals, and more—have never served on an NFPA committee. Farrell believes, like Grant, that in the not-so-distant future, spots on the NFPA 950 and NFPA 951 technical committees will be coveted. “As the market matures and there is more awareness, we will have a flood of people who will want to be involved, because there will be a lot of money potential in this area,“ Farrell predicted. “I guarantee a lot of people are going to look at this standard and see the enormous potential."

Jesse Roman is staff writer at NFPA Journal.