After the horrific nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil in January last year, Brazilian officials knew they needed to improve fire safety in their country. Instead of building their fire safety program anew, they turned to century-old expertise at the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA staff and Brazilian officials are now collaborating to translate the needed documents and ensure they meet the needs of that country.

Standards represent the knowledge and experience of the experts that develop them. As trade and communication technology erode national borders, the reach of this knowledge and experience should not be confined by geography.

With the U.S. and the European Union in the first round of negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal, this issue is ripe for discussion. These negotiations will cover many topics, from tariff levels to rules for investment ventures. One topic, though, stands out for standards developers: regulatory cooperation. In dozens of economic sectors, differences between regulatory schemes in the U.S. and the E.U. create non-tariff barriers to trade that result in billions of dollars of lost trade revenue, without necessarily improving the health and safety of the citizens on either side of the Atlantic. Standards, as the basis of many regulations, have therefore become a topic of interest among negotiators and stakeholders.

Although both U.S. and European standards are used throughout the world, they are developed through two very different systems. The three European standards bodies – European Committee for Standardization (CEN), European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – have a close relationship with the E.U. government. Furthermore, participation in these bodies is limited to European national players. In contrast to the E.U.'s top-down approach, the U.S. standards system lives in the private-sector. Several hundred organizations, both big and small, develop standards to meet the needs identified by their stakeholders. The process is open for anyone to participate. Over the years, government involvement in this process, and use of these standards, has led to a very effective public/private partnership.

While the two systems meet different needs, in a globalized economy their differences can pose a challenge to free trade. Manufacturers, and others, may strongly prefer a single standard, applicable worldwide, but governments have the right to set health and safety standards to protect their citizens as they see fit. To help ease potential conflicts, World Trade Organization (WTO) Members must consider the use of international standards in developing their regulations before resorting to nationally developed standards.

As the U.S. and the E.U. embark on trade negotiations, there is lingering contention over which standards are actually "international.” Standards developed by U.S.-based organizations are used all over the world. Hotels in Dubai follow the requirements of the Life Safety Code,1 international pipeline developers use ASME's Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code,2 and these are just two among hundreds of examples.

Regardless of the global footprint of U.S. standards, the E.U. narrowly defines international standards as those developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), or the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). WTO rulings that international standards can be any that are developed under open, transparent, and balanced systems have not changed the E.U.'s position.

If the trade negotiations are to put the U.S. and the E.U. on a path toward greater regulatory harmonization and cooperation, standards must be part of the discussion. As the current situation in Brazil shows, regulators must have the choice to pick the standards they believe will best protect their citizens. And, if regulators are to have a choice, the global standards system must thrive. As stakeholders in the TTIP process, NFPA and other U.S.-based standards developers have been vocal in educating U.S. negotiators about the benefits and vitality of our system. While the E.U. has adopted a top-down approach, the U.S. system relies on flexibility and autonomy for both the private sector and the regulators. It also relies on open, transparent, and increasingly global, participation.

How does this impact the fire protection engineering community? Safety codes and standards are developed and maintained by subject matter experts, like fire protection engineers, and they reflect the will of society on complex technical subjects. The example here is fire safety in nightclubs. Working together, we can seek to mitigate and eradicate fires like the recent one that occurred in Santa Maria, Brazil. To paraphrase the great philosopher George Santayana, if only we can learn the lessons of history, we will not be condemned to repeat them.

Meghan Housewright, Casey Grant, and Don Bliss are with the National Fire Protection Association.


  1. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
  2. Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, ASME, New York, 2013.