$4 million donation will aid fire research

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01/27/2011

Ever wonder about the science behind national fire codes? Well, the Fire Protection Research Foundation is vital to that, and a recent $4 million boost to the foundation’s endowment will aid it in its work, according to the head of the foundation.

The National Fire Protection Association yesterday announced it had made the multi-million-dollar addition to the foundation’s endowment. The nonprofit foundation is involved in research that is key to the success of the industry, ranging from determining the best place to install smoke alarms on an uneven ceiling to what the most effective words are to use in a verbal emergency notification system, so that people can easily understand what to do, according to Kathleen Almand, the foundation’s executive director.

The money will further strengthen the ability of the foundation to do such research, she told me.

“It’s wonderful,” Almand said. She said the endowment “enables us to undertake (research) projects in a very efficient and cost-effective manner.”

The foundation’s endowment now stands at $10 million, Almand said. She said the NFPA established a $6 million endowment for the foundation in 2008 on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the foundation. The independent foundation is an affiliate of the NFPA and, according to that group, “plans, manages and communicates consortium-funded research on a broad range of fire safety issues in collaboration with scientists and laboratories around the world.”

Almand said, “We have a pretty vibrant research program which is designed to improve the national fire alarm code and the sprinkler standard.”  The foundation doesn’t do the research itself but pays research institutions, such as universities, to do the work, Almand said.

She said an example of such research is work done to determine the optimal spacing requirements for installing smoke alarms on a ceiling that isn’t flat, such as a waffle ceiling or one with beams.

Another example, she said, was research done to determine the best sound for a smoke alarm to emit so it can alert high-risk individuals, such as the elderly, those who are hearing-impaired and even people impaired by alcohol. The elderly, for example, can have difficulty hearing the traditional high-pitched smoke alarm sound, Almand said.

She said research on human subjects showed that the optimum sound was “really a mixed-frequency sound that has both low tones and high tones in it, and that has been proven through these studies to be very effective.”

Also, Almand said, there currently is research underway to determine the best words to use in verbal communication emergency alarm systems. “You have words like ‘Get out of the building,’” she said. “What is the best way to say that from a human behavior perspective? … You don’t want to incur panic.” Also, she said, people with disabilities must be considered in such messages. “Can they hear it, can they see it?” she said.

She said, “That’s an emerging topic because fires alarm systems are being used for emergencies other than fire.”

The research, Almand said, “is all designed to make the NFPA codes and standards better.”