Exclusive Interview: Russell Leavitt, NFPA Chair of the Board

Share this content

IFSJ caught up with Russell Leavitt, Executive Chairman of Telgian Holdings, to find out about his new position as the National Fire Protection Association’s Chair of the Board

Congratulations on your appointment to Chair of the Board. How does it feel?

I am deeply humbled by my appointment to serve as the Chair of the NFPA Board of Directors. The list of previous chairs is distinguished and filled with some of the champions of our industry. I have had the honour and privilege of having been led and mentored by previous chairs including Dr Ernest Grant, Randy Tucker P.E., Keith Williams former CEO of Underwriters Laboratories, and Amy Acton President of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. These individuals, along with all the board members with whom I have served, come from a variety of backgrounds but share a common passion for making the world a safer place to live. I am looking forward to doing all I can during my two-year term to assist NFPA in living its vision and fulfilling its mission.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background in the fire industry?

I started my career in fire and life safety as a fire protection system design trainee in 1980 and worked in many roles including those of lead designer, project estimator, and general manager of a fire protection contracting firm. In 1990, a co-worker and I founded a fire protection system design company. We merged with a small fire and life safety consulting group in 1991. We eventually branded the company as Telgian Corporation which is now a part of Telgian Holdings, Inc. and I served as the CEO for six years. I became the Executive Chair of Telgian Holdings in 2009 and continue to serve in this capacity.

Throughout my career I have been heavily involved in the education and training of fire protection and life safety professionals including engineers, designers, contractors, and enforcers. I have conducted hundreds of training sessions throughout the world for organisations such as American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA), Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), and NFPA. I have also had the privilege of standing before audiences in diverse locations such as Lagos Nigeria, Cairo Egypt, Frankfurt Germany, Mexico City Mexico, Panama City Panama, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, Buenos Aires Argentina, Istanbul Turkey, Jeddah Saudi Arabia, Paris France, and Rotterdam Netherlands, to name a few.

In addition, I authored training programs for AFSA, NFPA, and Fire Smarts LLC. In 2013, I was honoured with the Parmelee Award by the AFSA for my contributions to the fire sprinkler contractor industry and by my nomination to the NFPA board of directors, on which I continue to serve.

You’ve been active with the NFPA for a number of years, can you tell me about your work with the Association prior to your appointment as Chair?

I was appointed to my first NFPA technical committee in 1992. It was my first active participation in the association and began my long history of technical committee service. NFPA publishes over 300 codes and standards, each of which are overseen by a technical committee, or panel in the case of the National Electric Code. These groups work as volunteers and review proposed revisions to a code or standard and, through a very strict process, determine the final content.

The most active codes and standards are revised on 3-to-5-year cycles and often involve many hours of work, travel, and research on the part of each volunteer. I have worked on, including serving as chair, technical committees for over a dozen codes and standards over the years including the Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems (NFPA 13), The Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-based Suppression Systems (NFPA 25), and the Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties (NFPA 909), to name a few.

As a result of my technical committee work, I was given the opportunity to become an instructor for the NFPA Professional Development Education Series, serve as a contributor to NFPA handbooks, and work as the subject matter expert for the development of live and on-line training programs.

What are your plans for the Association as Chair for the next two years?

This is an easy question to answer. I simply want to use my role as chair to continue to support the Association’s CEO Jim Pauley and his executive leadership team as they meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world. NFPA is made up of stakeholders from all facets of the fire and life safety world including standards enforcement, firefighting and prevention, manufacturing, and risk management. NFPA assists its stakeholders as they deal with issues such as the impact of climate change on fires in the wildland-unban interface, active shooter incidents, automatic retrieval storage facility fires, energy storage, and the introduction of codes and standards in the developing world. The mission is wide ranging and dynamic.

Although NFPA is a non-profit organisation, it self-funds its mission. NFPA does not support itself with charitable contributions, endowments, or government support. One of the most important functions of the board is to assist the organisation in maintaining the balance of generating revenue to achieve its altruistic objectives.

The board is actively involved in assisting the organisation as it moves into this challenging next phase of its existence. At the same time, the association is looking at other ways to fund its ever-growing mission and the experience and knowledge of the board members is an invaluable source of assistance in the transformation.

Do you have any initiatives or issues you’re looking to promote through your position?

I am a big supporter of the NFPA mission, and I have no qualms about promoting my belief that NFPA provides the best fire, life safety, and electrical standards in the world. The process is consensual, balanced, and most of all, transparent. The needs of all stakeholders are given their due in the development process and this is a rather unique approach and one in which I am very proud to participate.

I am also committed to the promotion and development of the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem. This holistic approach to fire and life safety perfectly sums up the way in which we will finally create a world that is free of the negative impact from fire and other risks to living safely. For example, we can create standards, but if a community has no method for formally adopting the standards or lacks a means for enforcement, the standards are simply words on a page.

How has the fire industry changed during your career?

When I started designing sprinkler systems in 1980, we had one type of sprinkler (spray), several orifice sizes, temperature ratings, etc. Now we have many types such as residential, ESFR, CMSA – the list is almost endless. We have standard-response, fast response, many orifice sizes, etc. NFPA 13 has grown from a pocket-sized pamphlet to a standard sized book of over 600 pages. At times I feel as though the complexity of designing and installing a sprinkler system has become almost untenable for all except the most expert of users. We need to look at how we can simplify things a bit, particularly as we move into developing countries.

I realise I am dating myself, but I started my career working with graphite and vellum. We created our designs by hand, we hydraulically calculated systems manually, and we developed individual details and diagrams. I am concerned because many of our young engineers and designers do not understand the basics. For example, we utilized computer hydraulic software programs without understanding how the software works. As a result, we often miss efficiencies that could be had because we are one-dimensional in our knowledge.

That said, I would not trade where we are today for where I started. We are producing better fire protection products, methods, and processes than ever before and the reduction in fire and life safety risks bear this out. We just need to make sure that we keep the pace and we do not sacrifice the gains we have made for purely economic reasons. We must never lose sight of our mission for the elimination of injury and death due to fire and other risks to life safety.

Any opinions expressed by Leavitt in this interview are his alone and do not represent an official statement or position of the NFPA.

This article was originally published in the September edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox