Are you the type who wonders about every ingredient in the dish you are about to eat? Or do you enjoy the entrée just accepting the compilation in front of you? Engineers in every discipline use codes, standards and guides to practice efficiently and effectively in their jobs. These documents are typically regulated by a jurisdiction which adopts or references them into law.
However, how much do you know about the ingredients and processes that go into the documents you regularly reference? Have you ever thought about contributing to them?
Many organizations facilitate the production of codes, standards and guides, such as ASCE, ASHRAE, ASME, ASPE, CEN, FM, ISO, NFPA, SFPE and UL. Which documents are needed on any project will vary with the task at hand and the specific scenario.
Throughout my years of practice, I have heard two questions that are applicable across many documents. The first is, “How did that regulation/guideline get into the document?” The second is, “What does the document intend by that statement?” Underlying both of these common questions are the fundamentals of how the codes, standards and guides, which we have come to use daily, are developed.
Many countries around the world have a recognized organization for standards that can issue “national” standards. As an example, the United States has the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). When an organization is an ANSI-accredited developer, it can submit standards for approval (complying with development criteria) and be designated as the American National Standard for a specific subject.
Examining the development process, the majority of codes and standards are written in consensus formats. This means that committees comprised of many stakeholders for the subject matter are gathered to develop, review and produce the language for a code, standard or guide. In some cases, a single document may be too broad in scope for one committee to handle, so multiple committees divide the material, which collectively makes up the document.
These stakeholders are usually volunteers and are gathered with diverse backgrounds, including end-users, manufacturers, installers, authorities and special experts, among others, to represent as much of an industry as possible.
As information is discussed and reviewed, the stakeholders weigh in (with the majority in agreement) to create the best possible regulations. Each organization has processes in place both for the committees to function and produce the documents, as well as allow the public to comment on the material being produced or updated. These processes include the timelines used to create codes, standards and guides.
If you are interested in a specific document, the best avenue is to contact the organization producing the code for the particular details.
When Clarification Is Needed
Committee members take great care and caution to ensure that the information is not only technically accurate, but sentences can be interpreted as intended so field applications are completed correctly. Public comment periods assist the committee members in clarifying any sentences interpreted by commenters in a manner not intended by the revision or modifications to the document.
However, typically only a small sector of the population who read and use the finished document take the time to review and comment. The more participation in the codes and standards process, the better the final product.
On occasion, a sentence or two within a document may create a gray area or be challenging to understand by the average or occasional user. When a question arises on the codes, standards and guidelines, many of the organizations or industry groups have technical support to attempt to help clarify the intent.
Of course, if you are lucky enough to know a committee member for the document you are using, some take that approach, too. Being present for discussions on new language or revisions to the documents can allow for ease of comprehending the intent of a section.
With numerous codes, standards and guides used for fire protection, let alone other disciplines, there are very few committees with completely full rosters. This means there is room for you to use your knowledge, expertise and experiences to maintain and improve the documents. The volunteers who participate in the committees are essential to the process. Variety in backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints are what makes the documents well-rounded and balanced in approach and details.
If working on a committee is not your cup of tea, there are still ways to be involved. The public comment windows are opportunities to see what the committee has modified and provide input. The committees review every comment received to determine if further refinements are needed to the document. Details that the committee may not have thought about during discussions, or the understanding and interpretation of those who were not involved in the discussions assist in shaping the final product.
Another point where someone can participate is by submitting comments and revision requests to a document. Codes, standards and guides eventually go through a revision cycle to keep the material up to date. Some documents have very set schedules where revision occurs every X-number of years; others are not revised until there is a need to update the information. However, comments are still appreciated when the review process does take place.
Simply put, do not keep your feedback on a document to yourself; sharing your input can help to make the next edition even better.
Whether you choose to just use the codes, standards and guides for your job or you are looking for more insight and involvement, it is essential to understand how they are developed. The processes can make understanding the requirements and details easier. Volunteers make the revision processes possible. Getting involved is easier than most people think.
Look for calls to participate in committees or comment windows. Whether a document is brand new or has been around since the late 1800s, the development and revisions need input, which means they need you.