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Why are We Here? And Where Will We Be Tomorrow?

Posted By George Ockuly, Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013

There is not a single person in this room whose life has not been affected by theNational Electrical Code, some of us by the inherent safety in our home’s wiring system, and others by the safety and functionally of our office or plant’s electrical distribution system. In America, a safe, reliable electrical system is generally considered a given. We pretty much take our premises’ wiring systems for granted. They are safe, functional and cost-effective.

These attributes have a significant economic impact on our lives, as well as our standard of living. It should come as no surprise that there is a one-to-one correlation between the use of electrical energy and our standard of living.

The safety of our premises’ electrical wiring systems is the heart and soul of the NEC. Its purpose is succinctly stated in 90.1(a) "the practical safeguarding of persons and property from the hazards arising from the use of electricity.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary edition of the Code, it is appropriate to reflect on two prominent questions: Why are we here, and where will we be tomorrow? For starters, let’s examine the "why are we here” question first. We will deal with the "where will we be tomorrow” a little later on.

Extensive Impact

The majority of us are here because theNational Electrical Codehas a material impact on our business lives. The Code influences utilities, manufacturers, engineers, contractors, and inspectors, labor, insurance interests, certification laboratories and users, just to name a few. All mentioned are affected by the Code, so it only stands to reason that these parties want to affect the Code as well. A logical question arises. How does such a diverse group of interests come together under one umbrella to create a Code that works so splendidly? The answer is elegantly simple. It is the structure of the NFPA consensus process and the dedicated volunteers who participate in the Code’s development.

The NEC has the enviable reputation of being the premier code in the building industry. There are several reasons for this stellar reputation. First, it was born out of necessity. Second, the NEC has benefited from some larger-than-life individuals who participated in its development. Third, the Code is developed in an open, transparent, and consensus process. And fourth, the Code is developed by dedicated, professional volunteers, such as you.

Together, let us look at these four reasons in a little more detail.

Out of Necessity

First, the Code was developed out of necessity. It met a specific need for electrical safety and fire prevention. Some of you may recall the historical beginning of the NEC. Back in the late 1800s, there were a number of fires in the New England area woolen mills. Something needed to be done.

A little sidebar of history not generally known is the role Cleveland, Ohio, played in the birth of the NEC. Charles Brush, the inventor of the carbon arc lamp, installed 12 carbon arc lamps on Cleveland’s public square on April 29, 1879. The lighting method became an instant commercial success and migrated east to illuminate the streets of Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston and other cities. However, significant problems surfaced when the lighting system was moved indoors.

Woolen mills in New England began using the carbon lamps as their primary illumination source. While the lamps provided good lighting, the mill operators soon found that the lamps were a very effective fire ignition source, especially with all the material cuttings and tailings suspended in the air. The many resulting fires became the impetus for the development of the NEC. In 1897, the first code was developed by the combined efforts of architectural, electrical, insurance, property owners and other associated interests. Their mission was to eliminate the problems inherent in this new energy source. In 1911, NFPA assumed responsibility for the Code and has continued to sponsor it to this day.

Participation of Industry Stalwarts

Second, the Code has benefited over the years from the participation of a number of industry stalwarts. These famous individuals have made a number of contributions that we continue to enjoy today. These champions of the industry include, but are not limited to, significant figures in the first 50 editions of the NEC:

1. Alvah R. Small. One of the first chairmen of the National Electrical Code Committee, Mr. Small worked at Underwriters Laboratories for many years as an assistant electrical engineer and rose to the position of vice chairman at UL. Educated as a civil engineer at the University of Maine, Mr. Small was a member of the National Board of Fire Underwriters’ Advisory Engineering Council, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the International Association of Electrical Inspectors.

2. William Henry Merrill. Founder of Underwriters Laboratories in 1894, he served as an electrical inspector for the Boston Board of Fire Underwriters, the electrician of the Chicago Underwriters Association and electrical inspector at the Chicago World’s Fair before founding the Underwriters’ electrical bureau. One of Mr. Merrill’s assistants was Franklin H. Wentworth, the first president of NFPA. Mr. Merrill’s vision provided the impetus for one of the pillars of the American electrical safety system.

3. Victor H. Tousley. First NFPA field engineer. Mr. Tousley worked concurrently for twenty years from 1928 to 1948 as the NFPA field engineer and the IAEI secretary/treasurer. He was the chief electrical inspector for the city of Chicago from 1898 to 1912. Educated at the Armour Institute (today’s Illinois Institute of Technology), he was editor of the NEC for a number of editions, and co-author of numerous electrical books. He was an early consensus builder among all interested parties in the electrical industry.

4. Baron Whittaker. President of Underwriters Laboratories from 1964 to 1978. He joined UL in 1936. During his tenure as president of UL, the organization’s laboratory capacity and engineering staff grew significantly. Whittaker was a member of the National Electrical Code Committee for many years and was chair of the Correlating Committee.

5. Charles L. Smith, Frank Stetka, and John Watt. All NFPA field engineers, Stetka and Watt were also secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee. The early work of these men on disseminating the requirements of the National Electrical Code in various publications provided the industry with a resource for better understanding the Code, and their efforts are carried on today in the National Electrical Code Handbook. John Watt was the editor of the first NFPA NEC Handbook.

6. R. L. Lloyd, Richard Biermann, and Harold Ware. Chairs of the NEC Technical Correlating Committee, Mr. Lloyd of UL and Messrs. Biermann and Ware represented the National Electrical Contractors Association and provided the leadership and vision through the latter part of the 20th century, under which the NEC kept pace with the constantly evolving electrical industry and maintained its position as the world’s most widely adopted building safety code.

The Consensus Process

Third, the NEC is developed in an open, transparent, consensus process. As such, it is recognized as an American national standard. The benefit of the consensus process cannot be overstated for it embodies the very spirit of the Code. The consensus process brings together a very pluralistic group of interests, each with their own expertise and agenda. Harnessing all this knowledge is a real challenge and, for the most part falls under the able leadership of our panel chairmen. A special thank you to the panel chairmen for all that you do!

The consensus process follows a disciplined and structured progression beginning with the request for proposals and continuing through the ROP and ROC stages. Finally, the Code is adopted by the NFPA membership during an open meeting. Another significant point to remember is that anyone can propose a change or comment on a proposed change. Proposals and comments come from all parts of the world. The technical committee and the technical correlating committee are charged with the arduous task of addressing all the related correspondence.

Further, technical committees must act on each proposal or comment meeting the regulations. Of course, the process does not end here. Even after the document is finalized and adopted by a formal vote of the general membership, there is a formal appeals process to allow interested and materially affected parties the opportunity to once again voice their particular position. The system provides for a complete and comprehensive vetting of all changes to the Code.

A special thank you is directed to the NFPA staff who work so tirelessly to assure that the entire process is smooth and seamless. This includes the codes and standards staff and especially the electrical team led by Mark Earley. It also includes the support services supplied by NFPA’s standards, administrative and legal teams. Without NFPA staff’s dedication and passion for the document as well as the process, our belovedNECwould never see the light of day.

By Multiple Volunteers

Fourth, the quality of theCodeis a direct reflection of the many volunteer members of the 19 technical committees and the technical correlating committee. Without their hard work, dedication and commitment, the NEC would not have progressed beyond what our predecessors completed.

I know from personal experience the amount of resources and effort that it takes to properly participate in the process. Additionally, I extend my sincere recognition to the many code panel members who come to the meetings well-prepared to discuss the issues at-hand. And discuss we do! We have all witnessed and participated in vigorous, sometimes heated, debates, concerning what changes should go into the Code or be removed from it. What is equally impressive is the attitude and professionalism of the technical committee members. They acknowledge, or at least tolerate, the views of other committee members and after debate is completed reach a workable consensus and walk away from the meetings as affable or at least forbearing associates. I consider it a privilege and an honor to participate in the formulation of the NEC. It is truly a broadening and educational experience.

The contributions of the volunteer members can never be fully recognized by our industry. A part of this problem is the NEC is so useful and effective that many observers take it for granted. They may even think it is on autopilot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the best analogy is that of a professional athlete. He or she makes their performance look so deceptively simple that the result seems almost commonplace. However, the vast majority of the population could never come close to the desired and required outcome.

So it is with NEC volunteers. They are professional, capable and enthusiastic. All of them can be justifiable proud of their efforts and contributions. Those who participate in the NEC process: NFPA volunteer technical committee members and NFPA staff belong to a special fellowship. Their mutual respect for each other, the Code and the process is evident in the results they produce. As members of this elite group, you should properly stand a little taller among your peers. For you make the world a safer place. Having reviewed several of the reasons of why the Code is so successful, we now must look at that second provocative question: "Where will we be tomorrow?”

Good Safety and Business Sense

Two vital subjects must be addressed to close the loop on today’s discussion, as they most definitely affect where we will be tomorrow.

First, and foremost, how do we assure the continuity of the process by providing for the next generation of participants and Code gurus? We must continue to make our industries, government and user communities soundly aware of the vital impact the NEC has on commerce and safety. We must commit to the importance of funding the process to guarantee the continued promulgation of the NEC and all the wonderful benefits it delivers. This is an especially difficult task when viewed in the context of today’s business environment—one of consolidation, hyper-tasking and doing more than less. At the risk of oversimplying—we must continue to expound the mantra "the NEC makes good safety and business sense!”

The Power of Mentoring

Another suggestion is for all of us "old salts” to mentor younger people about the merits of NEC. This is a rewarding experience for both mentor and student. I recall my personal experience over thirty years ago when I was employed by an electric utility in Cleveland, Ohio. My past experience with the utility was in operations and construction. On a bright September morning I was handed my first code book, the 1968 edition, and told that my new responsibility was to promote uniform NEC information within the utility’s service area that included over 30 political entities. What an overwhelming assignment for someone who had zero NEC experience.

Fate was kind to me that day because a very knowledgeable, dedicated electrical inspector, Edward Loesch from University Heights, Ohio, took me under his wing and mentored me in the NEC. As they say, I was in the formative stages of a business career. I admired Ed for his Code knowledge, patience and dedication to the industry. Ed, bless his soul, was a devoted electrical inspector, a former IAEI Western Section president and a great friend. After his retirement, Ed and I continued to stay in contact. Even into his late 80s, Ed and I would discuss Code whenever we would get together. Ed was my mentor and friend. I encourage each of you to become a Code mentor and share your knowledge. It is a very satisfying experience.

Finally, in closing, I have a request directed to each of you. The request is a clarion call to promote uniform adoption of the NEC in every village, hamlet, town, city, county and state, as well as at the federal level. In order to enjoy the benefits of the NEC, we must make sure it is adopted as "the law of the land.” Each of us must become activists in advocating legislative adoption of the NEC.

The National Electrical Code—that’s why we are here, and that’s where we will be tomorrow. On behalf of NFPA, I wish you a happy 50th edition, and thank each of you for your valued contributions and support.


Read more by George Ockuly

Tags:  Featured  September-October 2004 

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