Managing Crisis

Who Decided We Need This Standard?

Why are so many standards developed by groups that have no connection with emergency management?

by Lucien G. Canton / February 24, 2014

During a recent discussion on the Emergency Management Issues Facebook page, there seemed to be some confusion about why emergency management standards are produced by organizations that have no apparent connection with emergency management.

Technically, a standard is nothing more than a consensus document that has been developed by a standards development organization (SDO).  An SDO must in turn be accredited by an overseeing organization. In the United States, the overseeing organization is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI does not itself set standards but instead accredits other organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Accreditation means that the standards-setting organization follows a structured process that ensures openness, balance, consensus and due process in the development of standards.

While ANSI oversees the process of developing standards it does not manage that process. That is, ANSI does not decide what should or should not become a standard. This is left to the SDO. The SDO bases its decisions on what standards to produce by demand, either from its members or from outside parties. This has led to a number of standards from different organizations related to emergency management such as NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity or the ASTM EOC guidelines.

There are several things worth noting here. The first is that standards are voluntary. They do not, in themselves, have the force of law. However, once a standard is adopted by state and local jurisdictions, adherence becomes mandatory and organizations are bound to comply.  An example is NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code. While the NEC itself is not itself a law, its use is mandated by state and local laws. However, even where a standard is voluntary, its use may be considered an industry best practice, either through common use or as the result of litigation. Hospital accreditation is voluntary, for example, but a hospital that fails to become accredited faces considerable problems, including loss of government funding.

The second thing worth noting is that a standard represents the consensus of experts on the subject of the standard. It is not the work of the SDO staff. Under the structured process required by the SDO, these experts develop a draft standard. This standard is reviewed by the SDO for form and then sent to the membership of the SDO for review and comment. If necessary, the draft is revised and undergoes another review and comment period. This continues until all the concerns of the reviewers are either addressed or found unpersuasive. The standard is then published by the SDO, which charges a fee to cover its costs.

So if we reexamine emergency management standards, we find that they are not the product of the SDO but are, in fact, written by our own peers. There are two things you can do to help the process. The first is to volunteer for one of the peer groups helping to develop standards. The second is to submit proposed revisions to standards. This is part of the ANSI process required of SDOs and your comments must be reviewed and considered by the peer group. So get involved – standards are only useful if they truly reflect the consensus of our profession.