For the past several years, NFPA has hosted a Women in STEM session at the NFPA Conference & Expo, highlighting the professional accomplishments, learnings, and successes of women in the world of fire and life safety.
With a focus on diversity in the fire protection industry, this year’s Women in STEM event, A Glimpse into the Impact of Climate Change, SMART Buildings, and Modern Workplace Challenges, was held on Wednesday, June 20, addressing the impact of climate change on fire protection projects and emerging technologies in fire protection and life safety for SMART buildings, along with changes in workplace culture in a post-pandemic world. TED-style talks were presented by three featured speakers, followed by an open, engaging panel discussion moderated by Shelby Hall, fire analysis research manager at NFPA.
The event kicked off with Dr. Virginia Charter from Oklahoma State University, who spoke to changes in global climate change patterns over the long term and their impact on fire protection, highlighting that available water supply clearly present serious implications for effectively fighting fires in the future. According to Dr. Charter, the water stress projection for the U.S. in 2040 is “medium to high,” representing the midpoint of the range, while there’s potential for significant concern in Spain, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and countries in the middle east. To reinforce this point, she showed two images of the Hoover Damn side by side, one in 2001 and another in 2018; the draught’s impact on available water is sizeable.
Dr. Charter was clear to point out that it’s not that there won’t be any water in years to come, but if there is no available water to draw upon, what happens when fire breaks out? This issue prompts questions around codes and standards as well. For example, the first question in designing a fire sprinkler system is, “What is the water supply?” If the answer is that it’s insufficient, how can sprinkler systems be designed to adequately protect people and property? With these concerns in mind, Dr. Charter says we need to find ways to mitigate water security issues. As of now, there appears to be more questions than answers.
Next, Dr. Nalini Venkatasubramanian with University of California Irvine covered the evolution of technology in fire protection and life safety systems installed in SMART buildings, and the tremendous improvements that technology has made on all our systems, including their interoperability and ability to generate more current information.
In particular, she discussed her work on the E-knox Space Box study, which involved the development of open platforms for fire situational awareness (SA), featuring a range of new technologies and tools (i.e., semantic web, IoT) that provide dynamic SA at the fire site. She explained that a traditional “knox box” remove barriers to entry, so that information is available and accessible as a fire engine approaches the scene. As an integration platform, the knox box combines existing and live information to create and maintain a common operating picture for fire personnel, with whom they maintain a close collaboration.
Dr. Venkatasubramanian noted, however, that while capturing critical data strengthens the ability to mitigate crises, it does come with resource challenges, such as limited bandwidth and high deployment costs.
She also pointed out that there are new opportunities and trends for mixing building data with individual centric data, with examples of this already in play, such as drone-assisted monitoring for high-rise fires and WUI communities that conduct wildfire monitoring and fire-tracking.
Last but certainly not least, Chris Dubay, chief engineer and VP of engineering at NFPA, discussed changes in workplace culture in our post-pandemic world, focusing on what’s happened since the pandemic struck, why diversity matters, and how to lead in today’s working environment.
Dubay said that the way we work has shifted and accelerated since the pandemic hit – when it did, we all reconfigured how we work. Employees supported organizations and organizations supported their employees and it worked. Now we’ve seen that many employees prefer working from home and some organizations are pushing back. Dubay believes that leaders should help find a balance between implementing in-office connections while supporting the flexibility that working remotely offers.
But Dubay said he believes something bigger happened that fundamentally changed how we operate as a society and COVID accelerated that change. Every minute of every day is booked, often down to the minute. We’ve trained ourselves to be consumed at all times, and we have accepted and even set for ourselves an expectation that we are and will always be available.
At the core, Dubay said, if we as leaders are not willing to understand the new landscape and personally adjust – and adjust how we lead and support our teams – we won’t need to worry about diversity or leadership because quite simply we won’t be leading.
On that note, when it comes to diversity, if we only focus on numbers, maybe we can be diverse on paper, but it doesn’t ensure that we have a truly inclusive environment. Dubay said he believes that diversity starts and is driven by recruiting and promoting with inclusivity of all ethnicities, cultures, and genders.
“Recruit the best people you can and don’t settle, invest in the team professionally and emotionally. Set clear expectations of performance, hold people accountable, retain exceptional people, and let them be amazing,” said Dubay.
Dubay added that if people on our teams are different from us, they will work differently, they will be motivated differently – by focusing on the outcomes versus the rules we can use that energy to focus on knowing the person and who they are and what they are facing. When people are known by us, the outcomes will be better, the team will be stronger and more impactful. Agreement will not always come as easy, but we need to embrace and encourage that tension and process.
Dubay also spoke to knowing your team to better understand what is important to each of them as a person and as a team member. Our true self’s fundamentally shape what we value and how we see the world around us. It shapes how we operate, interact, and respond to each other. Do we assume positive intentions, or do we assume malice? Dubay said that leaders need to be the first to share as much as we can of ourselves and jump off the edge a bit – this builds trust and openness – then ask and provide opportunities for team members to bring their full self to the team.
“When we know our team members and they feel known, we can better adjust to meet their needs and expectations – which will allow them to perform at their best,” said Dubay.
Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this column (blog, article) is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.