Extreme weather is here — is your community ready?
Summer is here, which means wildfire and hurricane season is, too. Already in May, drought conditions and high temperatures led to significant California fires with more long, hot months to go. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts above-average hurricane activity, which would make it the seventh season in a row. It’s also clear these aren’t isolated occurrences. About one-third of Americans say they’ve faced extreme weather in just the past two years.
With the enormously high personal and economic costs caused by these disasters, it can feel like a daunting challenge to tackle. But there is something policymakers at all levels of government can do right now to make our communities safer, more resilient and better prepared for extreme weather: help ensure they use the most current consensus building codes and standards.
How much of a difference does it make to ensure roofs can withstand hurricane-force winds or homes have vents that prevent embers coming in during a wildfire? Every dollar spent on building code adoption yields 11 times more in savings. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, “Building codes have greatly improved society’s disaster resilience, while adding only about 1 [percent] to construction costs relative to 1990 standards. The greatest benefits accrue to communities using the most recent code editions.”
Recognizing these benefits, the Biden-Harris administration just launched the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes, which will help governments at all levels incorporate the latest standards, enabling communities to be more resilient to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events. In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced its Building Codes Strategy with similar goals.
These efforts are vital for our communities. Only about one-third of counties, cities and towns have the latest codes in place. However, those that have incorporated modern building standards are saving $1.6 billion a year in avoided damage from hazards like floods, wind and earthquakes. Through 2040, those communities are projected to cumulatively save $132 billion — savings that will increase even more if additional jurisdictions incorporate modern standards.
Critically, the White House’s building codes initiative underscores that independent nonprofits like my organization, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and others like it undertake the highly technical, time- and resource-intensive process of developing and updating the standards that improve resilience to environmental hazards. This standards development system has worked efficiently and effectively for 125 years, and its importance has been affirmed repeatedly by Congress and previous administrations during that time.
But it’s a system that’s under attack.
Sometimes, laws or regulations incorporated by reference privately developed standards like the ones we create. For example, NFPA’s National Electrical Code, long recognized as the premier standard for safe electrical design, installation and inspection, has been incorporated by reference in whole or part in all 50 states. Unfortunately, a vocal minority of special interests wrongly argue that this action — a clear public benefit — forfeits copyright protection for the entire standard.
Absent from these critics’ misinformed arguments is the fact that standards development organizations are self-funded nonprofits. We undertake the costly process of developing and updating standards at our own expense with no subsidies or contributions from business or government. We then recoup our costs by publishing, selling and licensing standards to people who use them in the course of their work, a common way copyright owners seek to fund new and updated editions. This revenue is how we continue to operate without taxpayer or industry funding, which, in turn, could sway the content of the standards. Copyright protection ensures we can be independent and put safety first.
The goal of the special interests is to effectively dismantle the current standards development system, the value of which is not in question. There are no alternatives anywhere as effective or efficient. Any other approach will result in greater cost to taxpayers or more industry influence — with standards updated less frequently or, worse still, never developed at all.
We all agree that it’s critical to modernize our building codes to protect the life and property of millions of Americans. To be able to do that, government needs to continue to have access to robust, privately developed standards, as it has for decades. Protecting this system means making it clear that the incorporation by reference of health, safety and security standards doesn’t destroy the elements of their copyright protection.
Jim Pauley is the president and chief executive officer of the National Fire Protection Association.