I just made it back to my post at SSI central after attending my first NFPA Conference & Expo, this year held in Las Vegas. I’ve returned after a couple days at the show this week with a heightened awareness for the complexity of the organization and its myriad labors. (You can check out a photo gallery here, highlighting images from the exhibition show floor, among others.)
As James Shannon, president and CEO of NFPA, detailed in his general session address, the association has traveled an extraordinary upward trajectory — from its founding 116 years ago when its main work was to standardize sprinkler installation, to today as a multifaceted organization providing health and safety standards on which the masses depend.
Shannon wasted no time introducing the theme of his address, held in a massive ballroom setting at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center: Despite its continued success in developing codes and standards used by industry and adopted into law by agencies at all levels of government, these are “the most challenging times that NFPA has ever faced.”
As I would come to learn, revenue generated by the ownership of the copyrights to NFPA codes and standards is what sustains the association and provides much of the funding necessary to support the code/standard process as well as other NFPA undertakings. And there are many, including residential sprinkler advocacy, electrical and life-safety training, establishing a $10 million endowment for its research foundation, plus numerous public education programs. Some of these pursuits generate revenue, others do not. Yet NFPA is committed to making the material available to all.
“The Internet age and digital technology have given us an unprecedented ability to distribute all of that information to more people, faster than any of us could have imagined a decade or two ago,” Shannon said.
It wasn’t so long ago when NFPA codes and standards were available for reference only in big sets of books ordered through the mail or by phone. Today, more than 70% of such orders are placed on the Internet, and the percentage of NFPA’s revenue derived from digital products is increasing each year. Moreover, NFPA advocacy campaigns would be impossible without the Internet.
NFPA’s technological evolution has also allowed it to become a bona fide international organization. For example, there are NFPA chapters throughout Latin America, agreements with the Chinese government for the use of NFPA’s standards, and new relationships with enforcement agencies throughout the Middle East.
“We are in contact with people all over the world every single day of the year. Now it is as easy to work with someone in Beijing or Buenos Aires or Dubai as it is to conduct business right down the street,” Shannon said.
So where’s the big challenge in all this accomplishment?
Follow the money. It takes a great deal of it to produce all that NFPA does. Again, when its codes and standards are adopted into law, the customers who buy them fund the whole system through that purchase. Paradoxically, the very platform that has allowed NFPA to flourish and disperse its wealth of life-safety work — the Internet — is also the root of the challenges Shannon referenced.
“… the Internet has brought about some new thinking that threatens our ability to charge for codes and standards. Some free access advocates argue that whenever a privately developed standard is adopted into law, the copyright is extinguished,” Shannon said. “Their view is that government should be able to give away all codes and standards once they choose to use them, and make them available on the Internet without any restriction.”
Several standards, including some NFPA standards, have already been posted on the Internet, violating the copyrights of the organizations that own them, Shannon said. In fact, there has been one major court decision that agreed with the argument that adopted standards are automatically in the public domain.
In response to such threats, NFPA is mounting a vigorous defense of its copyrights and retooling its business model to buttress its future. Shannon noted the association is on solid financial ground and well positioned to carry out its mission.
“We have a duty as the stewards of this organization to be aggressive and creative for the cause that has been our sole purpose since the very beginning of NFPA — saving lives and protecting property from fire.”