HPAC On The Air
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HPAC 'On The Air': Fire Protection Pulse Check, with NFPA's Jim Pauley

May 21, 2022
*PODCAST* Ahead of the group's annual meeting in Boston, the electrical engineer updated us on important developments in building codes and safety standards.

The year in building management began with a stark, life/safety reminder after two deadly apartment fires in New York and Philadelphia grabbed national headlines and shook our industry from coast to coast.

In HPAC Engineering's January/February editorial, we quoted Jim Pauley, President and CEO of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), who had commented on the two tragedies in his own NFPA blog. Pauley had expressed hope that the shock of the those events would rouse us from "over-confidence and complacency" and lead to "needed changes and more awareness" of persistent risks.

  • Read our January/February editorial here.

To follow up, we invited Pauley to join us on 'HPAC On The Air', just ahead of NFPA's annual meeting this June in Boston. We discussed the recent fires, the upcoming conference, and other pressing issues in fire protection. Of note, prior to joining NFPA in 2014, Pauley had spent 30 years in the electric and energy industry, serving the last several as a Senior Vice President at Schneider Electric. An electrical engineer by training, he has also served the industry in other leadership roles, perhaps most notably as Chair of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Click below to listen to the interview...


HPAC: Mr. Pauley, thank you very much for your time here in visiting with 'HPAC On The Air' ahead of your big annual conference in Boston. I believe this is your first time meeting in-person again since the start of the pandemic. Could you please describe a bit how NFPA as an organization has navigated these unusual waters over the last two-plus years?

Jim Pauley: I am so excited to be back in-person for our conference. We have been on hiatus for two years because of the pandemic, and that's been painful because it's the place where we get to see so many of our stakeholders face-to-face. It's our big event and your question about the last two years is very interesting, because we had to pivot very quickly. Last year was supposed to have been our 125th anniversay as an organization, so we're going to finally culminate that celebration in Boston this year. NFPA was founded in Boston in 1896, so it is very fitting that we have this celebration there.

During the pandemic, we really got concerned with how we were going to stay connected with folks. So, like a lot of people did, we began to pivot even more quickly into the digital environment and what that meant. So we created a 12-month-long series of webinars and held one every month. Topics included Electrical one month, Wildfires, First Responders, Fire Suppression. A lot of different topics to keep us connected with our stakeholders, since we weren't doing the conference in person. And it actually worked out quite well. But it's still not the same as being in person.

Also, like most of your readers, we did a lot of pivoting on other things, too. Our online learning that we did in our training program grew by leaps and bounds. We created some incredible programs that had 3-D animations in them, and more immersive experiences. So, the pandemic, for all of the bad things it did for us, some good things did still come out of it. And our pivot to the digital environment, we had been on that path. But this really sped it up much quicker.

HPAC: So, these are changes that you foresee continuing long after the pandemic?

Pauley:  Oh, absolutely. We see online learnings as being a thing that is going to be here to stay. People have realized that they can get really good, quality training either at their office, or at their home, and at different hours during the day. And I think that has become very meaningful to folks. We also launched a huge digital platform called NFPA LiNK, which is where all of our codes and standards are, plus expert commentary, our handbook, and a lot of ancillary material that helps people better understand how to apply our codes and standards. Again, we had sped that release up, and that's really our flagship platform now, going forward. And that was introduced during the pandemic.

HPAC: On that subject of technology, before the pandemic, NFPA in 2016 also launched 'NFPA Xchange' to give members more ways to connect remotely with each other and with other experts. Is that different from LiNK, and if so, how will they work together?

Pauley:  That's a great question. Today, they are two separate platforms. But in the future, I can see them coming together to give users a more seamless experience. LiNK is really about information and knowledge access. It starts with our codes and standards at the heart of it. I mean, we have 325-plus different codes and standards now. We started in 1896 with one. That was the sprinkler standard, and it was followed quickly by the electrical code, and it's grown from there. So, LiNK is really about you being on your phone, your tablet, or your laptop, and being able to have all of this information at your fingertips. 

Xchange is about community. It's about getting like-minded folks together to talk about similar problems and similar solutions. So, it's really focused on NFPA members, and the member experience is much deeper there.

And we've really got people talking to each other. Just today, I saw one posted that was a guy asking really thoughtful questions about personal protective equipment (PPE) and NFPA 70E, which is our standard for electrical safety in the workplace. He was asking questions like, 'What problems have you run into with this?' And other people were answering and sharing their experiences. So that's the community aspect. And we actually have carried some of that same thinking into LiNK, as well.

HPAC: Tell us a bit about the NFPA conference and expo and what attendees and exhibitors can expect to find there. Especially regarding new codes and standards.

Pauley:  It's really interesting, Rob. Many had wondered, 'How's it gonna go, getting back in person?' 'Are people ready to get back to shows?' But our show floor has been filling up rapidly. So we're going to have a huge number of exhibits and over 110 education sessions that people can pick from, whether you're in electrical, or public education, fire alarm, fire suppression, medical, healthcare, etc... We also have a lot of first-time exhibitors, which I really didn't expect post-pandemic. So that has been a pleasant surprise.

It will culminate with our technical session on the last two days of the show. That's where our members get to weigh in on the codes and standards that are up for review... There's always a lot of activity around the National Electrical Code. That document has so much public input and public comment. And people are always trying to get their last pieces of discussion in on the 2023 version of the NEC. Also, NFPA 25 on inspection, testing and maintenance of sprinkler systems will be there. And NFPA 855 is going through its revision cycle. That's on energy storage systems, which you can imagine in this world has become a very popular standard. But this is all focused upon fire protection for those storage systems.

Those committees have been busy at work. And I am sure if you talked to the folks on those committees, they would tell you they have things coming forward. They have controversies that they are going to talk about, and that's just the beauty of the whole process. It brings a lot of people together to have robust discussion. And at the end, this open consensus process that we do arrives at some great information.

HPAC: How large is the international component of the show this year?

Pauley:  My staff just informed me that we have representatives coming from 69 different countries who are going to be at the show. So it really has become a hallmark event. Before I came here in 2014, I had been active over the years and I knew they had a global footprint. But I didn't realize how well respected and broad the NFPA brand was (internationally) until I got here and started traveling around the globe. At this conference, we'll have people from as far away as Australia, and several South American countries, folks from the Middle East and Europe. It's a melting pot of fire protection discussions and I am extremely proud of it, and quite impressed with it at the same time.

HPAC: Earlier this year, U.S. building owners received a tragic wakeup call in January from two deadly apartment fires, just four days apart, in Philadelphia and Bronx NY, where 29 residents died, including 16 children. At the time, you wrote in your own NFPA blog that you hoped the shock of those two tragedies would rouse us from "over-confidence and complacency" and lead to "needed changes and more awareness." Can you update us now on any signs of progress in those areas?

Pauley:  Yes, that was a tragic way to start the new year. Tragic in so many ways. Going back to your point about my blog and that "complacency" piece. We'd been talking about that for some time. Over the decades, we've actually done a good job on fire. Fire deaths now are certainly down from where they were in the 1960s and 70s. And the amount of loss is down, too. But what that also has done is create a view among the public, and among building owners, that says, 'Well, I won't have a fire. I didn't see one last week, so I am not going to have one this week.' So, that is a bit of a problem, and we need to do more education that reminds people, 'Yes, fires do still happen, so you need to be prepared.'

One interesting statistic that I can give you deals with home fires. Back just a few decads ago, if you had a home fire, because of the building materials that were used, furnishings and so forth, you had about 17 minutes before that thing was going to go to flashover. But today, in these modern floor plans, with modern building materials, ultimately petroleum-based products that are in furnishings now, that time is down to three minutes. And the average response time for fire departments is typically seven to eight to nine minutes. And those are really good response times. So, when fire actually happens, it can often be very tragic. But often, and I wish tragedy would never happen, but a lot can rise up from tragedy that can be for good. And in New York, we've seen a lot of activity where they are trying to pass some bills, at both the state level and at the city level, that are addressing a number of things, like penalties for violating standards and building codes.

That was a bit of the problem that we ran into (in New York), like door closures not working. If you have a fire in one unit and the door stays open, and the door to the stairwell stays open, too, you're going to get rapid spread. Codes and standards take that into account. That's why you have automatic closures on those doors, so that when you go through them, the door closes back. Those hadn't been maintained in some cases. So, we're looking at how we can update our codes more regularly, and expand remedies for violations. The fire department in New York has been very involved in these and very active in pushing these items forward. In Philadelphia, there has been less activity on the governmental side, but I know the fire chief in Philadelphia is personally taking these things on, saying, 'How is it that we are going to improve the education of our public?' 

One of the challenges in our country is the age of our housing stock. From a fire perspective, our housing problem has a multiplier effect. And it's a problem that the government is going to have to address. But we're spending a lot of time with the public to get over the complacency piece. People do still have fires, and when they do, it often can be tragic. So, that's one of the things we have worked on for a really long time, and we are going to continue to work on.

HPAC: Finally, Mr. Pauley, you stepped into this role full-time at NFPA in 2014 after more than a decade at Schneider Electric that included concurrent service atop the American National Standards Institute. You're trained as an electrical engineer and spent more than two decades in the private sector. What has driven you to devote the balance of your career to public service and public safety?

Pauley:  Actually, I was at Square D when they were acquired by Schneider in 1991. So, if you include my time there, we're talking about almost 30 years in the private sector. Even when I was at Schneider, my team there was involved with codes and standards. So once you have been part of that process for a number of years, you see that it is making a difference in how you protect people and property. Participating in that process and lending your expertise to that process does make a difference in the results. So, I did that for a long time, and I was on NFPA technical committees, on their standards council. I was a member, a customer, however you want to look at it. So that's where this really began.

My dad was an electrician, so I actually grew up as an electrician. We were from Kentucky and, I tell you, there was plenty of satisfaction even in that role. To be able to solve somebody's dangerous wiring problem, knowing that they were going to be safer when you could do that, that had a lot of meaning to it for me. So, it carried on through the NFPA piece, and Schneider was a great company and I didn't really have a compelling reason to leave. Yet this opportunity became available with NFPA, and here we live and breathe every day with doing things that ultimately are focused on helping to save lives and helping to better protect property. And that's a pretty good place to be.


To listen to previous 'HPAC On The Air' podcasts, visit our Members Only page.

About the Author

Rob McManamy | Editor in Chief

An industry reporter and editor since 1987, McManamy joined HPAC Engineering in September 2017, after three years with BuiltWorlds.com, a Chicago-based media startup focused on tech innovation in the built environment. He has been covering design and construction issues for more than 30 years, having started at Engineering News-Record (ENR) in New York, before becoming its Midwest Bureau Chief in 1990. In 1998, McManamy was named Editor-in-Chief of Design-Build magazine, where he served for four years. He subsequently worked as an editor and freelance writer for Building Design + Construction and Public Works magazines.

A native of Bronx, NY, he is a graduate of both the University of Virginia, and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Contact him at [email protected].