In their own words, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “is a global self-funded nonprofit organization…devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.” It now issues some 300 consensus codes and standards. But how did it come about in the first place? A brief history starts with understanding the climate at the end of the 20th Century.
During the Second Industrial Revolution, the world could barely keep pace with all the changes wrought by technological advancements. Every few years, another society-altering invention would explode onto the world scene including:
As each light-bulb came on for these inventors (pun intended), a new industry necessarily sprang up, almost overnight, in order to meet public demand for the products. This led to more and larger facilities being constructed. But the very real threat of fire to the workers, goods, and structures became increasingly apparent. And so the innovations in technology ultimately begat innovations in the very safety technologies needed to protect them and the people hard at work producing them.
To cite the danger these technologies were presenting, we can quote a document from 1881 which states, “…65 installations of electric lighting in the mills…of New England which were followed by 23 fires in six months.”1
Insurance Companies who were on the financial hook for these incidents obviously had reason to pursue new safety measures. A partnership between underwriters and electrical equipment manufacturers led to the creation of “Underwriters Laboratories” – an endeavor to thoroughly test products before they were released to the public. Additionally, Edison, well known for his invention of the incandescent lamp, understood the risks it carried and was advocating for wire insulation and fusible elements in circuits.
In response to all of this, a meeting took place in 1895 with a group of industry leaders (including Frederick Grinnell of today’s “Grinnell Fire Protection”) to tackle the specific issue that varieties of sprinkler systems were being installed throughout emerging factories with no consistency – creating endless nightmares for plumbers. Establishing a common set of guidelines was so immediately beneficial that the writing was on the wall for what was soon to come. By late 1896, the group would meet again and establish a name dubbing themselves the “National Fire Protection Association.”
Meanwhile, the electrical industry was in the midst of its own need for standardization as 5 different and somewhat competing codes had already emerged in America. The need for a single code which would serve the globe was well recognized. So, the 5 American codes, 2 British codes, and a German code were all brought together for review and discussion. Thus the first “National Electric Code” was adopted.
In 1897, the NFPA established the following core principles which still guide it to this day over 120 years later, ”To bring together the experience of different sections and different bodies of underwriters, to come to a mutual understanding, and, if possible, an agreement on general principles governing fire protection, to harmonize and adjust our differences so that we may go before the public with uniform rules and conditions which may appeal to their judgment is the object of this Association.”
Although the NFPA was originally made up of insurance company representatives, by the early 20th century it would add representatives from laboratories, contractors, water works, fire stations, mechanical engineering firms, architectural firms, and more – helping to round out the input necessary to insure decisions would made as robustly as possible.
Over its more than 12 decades of existence, it’s impossible to estimate the number of lives spared and economic loss averted worldwide by the efforts and cooperation of those industry leaders who have made up the NFPA which continues its important work today.
1- Coggeshall, Allen, “50 Years of the National Electrical Code”, Qualified Contractor, 12/1946, pg 3.