How NFPA's grace period impacts your fire departments

It can take a year or longer for a new standard to take effect, which impacts how and what departments can purchase

Last month the grace period ended for a number of products certified against different NFPA standards. The grace period allows manufacturers to continue selling a product to an older NFPA standard after the new edition has been promulgated.

Historically, the grace period has been from six months to a year. It allows manufacturers to react to the standards' new requirements, to develop and get new products certified, and to transition inventory so that only products certified to the new edition are available after the grace period.

Although this approach may seem reasonable on the surface, it is relatively complex and can cause the fire service several huge issues when it comes to purchasing PPE.

This year, three of the more encompassing standards were set to have their grace periods expire at the end of August. New editions of NFPA 1971 (turnout clothing), NFPA 1981 (SCBA), and NFPA 1982 (PASS) were actually established in August 2012 and December 2012.

Yet, while the grace period for NFPA 1971 did officially end Aug. 29, both the NFPA 1981 and NFPA 1982 standards were extended until Feb. 28, 2014.

Standard setting
NFPA's goal is to revise standards every five years. This is used to address technology improvements as well as meet emerging fire service needs with the hope of improving firefighter health and safety.

A new standard raises issues as to what happens to the old gear. One of the perennial questions is whether gear manufactured to the old standard is still compliant. The answer is yes because at the time of its manufacture it complied with the relevant edition of the NFPA standard it was certified to.

Yet, problems occur when the new standard is released and there are still products in inventory that comply with an older standard. To address this, the NFPA requires that all new certification to the older edition of the standard stop at the time the standard is issued.

Remember, the same rules permit manufacturers to keep making product to the old edition for about a year after the new edition was issued to let them react and clean out their inventory.

Glitches in the process
There are and have been problems with this process. First, the day an NFPA standard is issued is not the day it is actually available. The process for establishing or revising NFPA standards is relatively long and it takes even longer for all the paperwork to catch up to allow NFPA to print or make an online edition of the new standard available.

Lately, that delay has been almost two months.

This means that the certification organizations that test all products to ensure that they meet the standard don't start testing until they received the official copy of the standard. And despite NFPA's best efforts, there can be a lot of errors.

Many of these errors are simple mistakes that are trivial, but some have profound effects on the ability to test and certify PPE. Correcting and fixing these errors takes more time and results in longer delays in producing product that can meet the new standard.

In other cases, it is discovered after publication that even those changes that seemed to make sense when they were adopted cannot be easily met. This causes manufacturers to go through significant research and development programs to make new products that meet the requirements.

This has happened in recent years, which begins a relatively long period of time for industry to find a technology that works. All in all, the one year or six months tends pass relatively quick.

Third-party testing
There are certification organizations responsible for the implementing and monitoring the grace period. These independent companies test and certify products. Their responsibilities go further because every product that is certified bears the mark of the certification organization as evidence of meeting the respective standard.

To ensure that no missteps occur, certification organizations are obliged to conduct quality-assurance audits and inspect the manufacturing facilities where the products are made. These audits include looking at the manufacturer's inventory to make sure that the products are properly labeled and that no old edition product is still being sold.

The specific rules within the NFPA standards say that this surveillance applies to the products that are directly under the manufacturer's control. This means that a lot of old-edition product can be sold to distributors right before the grace period ends leaving the manufacturers compliant with the requirements for having only new-edition product in their inventories.

Problem areas
The industry encountered significant problems for several types of products with the new editions of NFPA 1971, 1981 and 1982.

For example, nearly all the manufacturers had difficulties in getting helmets certified to NFPA 1971 until the very end of the grace period. Part of the problem was that new requirements had serious effects on products that had been previously certified, but were not discovered until relatively late in the certification processes.

For NFPA 1981 on SCBA, testing capabilities that are provided by the government were slow in responding to manufacturers that were already trying to overcome significant technical challenges to meet new criteria for facepiece heat resistance. The claim that sequestration resulted in a lack of government resources came into play and resulted in an emergency petition to NFPA to extend the certification grace periods six months. Since PASS devices are often incorporated into SCBA, that standard also had its grace period extended.

While this may seem to be a bunch of administrative mumbo-jumbo, it does have significant impacts on fire service purchases during the transition. While in many cases the differences between products certified to the old and new editions are not major, some can be dramatic.

This is the case with the new facepiece criteria that presents significant challenges for manufacturers to come up with new materials. In the interim, departments that wish to replace or supplement their existing PPE must buy old-standard equipment or wait for the new equipment to be available.

If government grant money is involved in the purchase, there can be additional complications as extensions of those grants are worked out.

Why the delay?
One might ask why, with the full year and an understanding of impending changes to the standard, that these problems cannot be better anticipated. That problem is multi-fold.

Committees try to be diligent in making changes to the standard, but often do not go through a full process of validation to ensure that the changes will achieve the intended goals. In addition, manufacturers may not have the technologies in place to react to new requirements. On top of that, certification organizations may not have the necessary equipment to set up new tests in a timely fashion.

All this means that better planning and standards-development validation are needed to ensure that the transitions don't go haywire. For its part, the NFPA is looking at better ways to disclose what the final standard will look like well ahead of its release date so that industry can be prepared to make the transition faster. 

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