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This image shows a coupled fire hose laying on the ground.

Standards are part of our daily lives. When purchasing a garden hose, for example, we take for granted that it conforms to a standard size and will fit into our outdoor spigots. Standards ensure the end-user gains maximum benefit from the product, process, or system to which standards are applied, and when implemented correctly their presence is almost invisible to the user. Essentially, standards simply help ensure the products we buy do the job they are intended to do, in the context in which we need them to perform.

Standards are not only vital to prosperous industry and commerce interactions, they also ensure all the technical aspects of the equipment used by first responders and public health personnel meet the needs of respective missions. It is estimated that over 50,000 volunary standards have been developed and applied to nearly all industry and product sectors to date.

Flash Content"Since the first fire hydrant was designed in 1817 by George Smith, each design, including hose connection threads, was patented by its manufacturer. Differences in hose connections on the hydrants, both diameters and threads, were part of the design that protected manufacturers from competition. Cities with different hydrant suppliers had fire fighting water supply systems with connections that were incompatible with those in other, sometimes neighboring, communities. History demonstrates that in major urban fires, the inability of fire fighting apparatus from other areas to utilize the water supply, because of incompatible hose connections, was a contributing factor to increased fire damage.

"One of the most well known examples of standards affecting safety and mission effectiveness is demonstrated through the Baltimore Standard. The lack of uniform threads is commonly cited as a factor in the massive destruction of the Great Baltimore Fire that started on Sunday afternoon, February 7th, 1904. The fire is believed to have been started by a cigar or cigarette that fell into the basement of the John Hurst & Company building. Engine companies from Washington, DC, transported by train, arrived in Baltimore to assist in fire fighting a few hours after the fire started. Unfortunately, their hoses would not fit Baltimore hydrants due to the difference in the threads. The fire continued to claim block after block of buildings in the Baltimore business district as more fire companies arrived from surrounding cities and counties, Altoona, Annapolis, Chester, Harrisburg, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and York. Some of the responding fire companies’ hoses fit the Baltimore hydrant connections; others did not. The Great Baltimore Fire was finally put out thirty hours after it started. Despite the 1,231 firefighters, 57 engines, 9 trucks, 2 hose companies, 1 fireboat, and 1 police boat used, the fire claimed 1,526 buildings in an area of 70 city blocks. A total of 2,500 businesses, banks, and other properties were lost in the fire.

"This brought national attention to the lack of standards for firefighting equipment. It was estimated by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – known at that time as the National Bureau of Standards – that more than 600 variations of fire hose couplings existed, with vendors often using this as a competitive advantage. In 1905, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) established a national standard for the diameter and threads per inch for hose couplings and fire hydrants. The standard set in 1905 by the NFPA remains the standard used today."

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In the most basic form, standards are shared and repeated use of rules, conditions, guidelines, or characteristics that intend to establish universal solutions to common requirements. Standards are used to facilitate consistency and efficiency for products, processes, production methods, and management systems. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines a standard as a, "Document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context." Standards can be one or more of the following:

  • Guide
  • Recommendation
  • Best practice or code of practice
  • Code (e.g., National Building Code)
  • Document that recommends practices or procedures for the design, manufacture, installation, maintenance or utilization of equipment, structures, or products
  • Definition of terms (lexicon)
  • Classification of components
  • Delineation of procedures
  • Specification of dimensions, materials, performance, designs, or operations
  • Measurement of quality or quantity in describing material, processes, products, systems, services, or practices
  • Test methods and sampling procedures
  • Descriptions of fit and measurement of size or strength 

It is important to note that while existing standards may inform the development of regulatory requirements, they are not themselves regulatory. Regulations are enforced through a designated agency (e.g., the Food and Drug Administration) and often have legal consequences; standards are voluntary.

Government agencies use externally developed standards in a wide variety of ways, including the following:

Usage of Standards
Adoption An agency may adopt a voluntary standard without change by incorporating the standard in an agency's regulation or by listing (or referencing) the standard by title. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted the National Electrical Code (NEC) by incorporating it into its regulations by reference.
Strong Deference An agency may grant strong deference to standards developed by a particular organization for a specific purpose. The agency will then use the standards in its regulatory program unless someone demonstrates to the agency why it should not.
Basis for Rulemaking This is the most common use of externally developed standards. The agency reviews a standard, makes appropriate changes, and then publishes the revision in the Federal Register as a proposed regulation. Comments received from the public during the rulemaking proceeding may result in changes to the proposed rule before it is instituted.
Regulatory Guides An agency may permit adherence to a specific standard as an acceptable, though not compulsory, way of complying with a regulation.
Guidelines An agency may use standards as guidelines for complying with general requirements. The guidelines are advisory only; even if a firm complies with the applicable standards, the agency may conceivably still find that the general regulation has been violated.
Deference in Lieu of Developing a Mandatory Standard An agency may decide that it does not need to issue a mandatory regulation because voluntary compliance with either an existing standard or one developed for the purpose will suffice for meeting the needs of the agency.

While there are many types of standards, they are not mutually exclusive and many times more than one type of standard can be applied to a product, process, or system. These various types of standards are classified as follows:

Types of Standards
Consensus Standards Utilize due process and account for multiple interests.  For example, OSHA adopted national consensus standards extensively as a basis for its original mandatory safety and health standards and has maintained them since the earliest days of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Documentary Standards Define a design, performance, or rating requirement.  Documentary standards relevant to first responders include response equipment ratings and performance standards published by private sector standards-developing organizations such as ASTM International, IEEE, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  There are hundreds of documentary standards for first responder equipment, but one illustrative example is the ANSI N42.33-2006, American National Standard for Portable Radiation Detection Instrumentation for Homeland Security.
Physical Standards Are used to calibrate, control or compare results for assessment of precision.  The NIST is currently developing physical standards for interoperable broadband internet communications systems for mass notification uses at a national level.
Environmental or Health Standards Define maximum exposures or concentration limits.  The NIOSH recommends Relative Exposure Limits and OSHA sets Permissible Exposure Limits for workers exposed to chemicals in an occupational setting.  For example, NIOSH and OSHA define the inhalation exposure limit for xylene as 100 ppm (parts per million).
International Standards, National Standards, and Mandatory Standards International standards, national standards, and mandatory standards are enforced by regulation or law. All standards are either mandatory or voluntary, and some voluntary standards are effectively mandatory through social, economic or other regulatory pressures to comply with them.  The International Standards Organization (ISO) sets standards for business, government and society that are followed internationally by companies, organizations and countries.  ISO 26000 governs risk management standards internationally and ISO 9000 pertains to quality management of products that are made around the world.  ISO standards are voluntary, but usually required for participation in the world economic trade market.  The OSHA standards are mandatory within the U.S.
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