Cover: The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Impact on Fire Safety Standards

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Impact on Fire Safety Standards

Published Jan 26, 2022

by Benjamin M. Miller, Tom LaTourrette, Drake Warren, David Metz

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Research Questions

  1. What role has NIST played in the standards-development process historically, recently, and in newly developing standards?
  2. What values do these standards provide to society, and how can these impacts be measured?
  3. What economic impacts from these standards can be attributed to NIST?

The authors document the role of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in the initial adoption of smoke alarms, ongoing changes to smoke alarm performance requirements, and ongoing research on wildfire safety in the wildland urban interface. They also provide econometric estimates of the social and economic impact of the fire safety standards that NIST helped develop.

Key Findings

NIST plays a critical role in the development and adoption of fire safety standards

  • NIST researchers and staff proactively engage with stakeholders to ensure that NIST's research is being transitioned and incorporated into the standards and codes development process.
  • NIST research has contributed to the modification of smoke alarms in response to widespread adoption of synthetic materials and to efforts to reduce nuisance alarms.
  • NIST's research demonstrated that the majority of structure ignitions in wildlife urban interface areas are due to firebrands. This finding is leading to new standards for home construction.

Standards play a key role in creating improvements in fire safety, but it is difficult to attribute these benefits to any single individual standard

  • NIST's work in the 1960s and 1970s helped rapidly shift home smoke alarms from novelty to standard practice. U.S. fire deaths subsequently declined by 50 percent.
  • Evidence from the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, suggests that homes built more recently face a lower probability of damage during wildfires, in concert with steady improvements in standards.

NIST is widely respected as a key participant in the development of standards, but it is difficult to separate the value of NIST's inputs from others' inputs to the collaborative creation of standards

  • Many organizations are involved in the development of fire safety standards, but substitutes for NIST are not readily apparent. If NIST were to become unable to perform its research activities, long-term progress on fire safety standards would be substantially affected.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and conducted in the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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