Seeking Something Beyond Golf Networking? TS&S Committee Promises Above-Par Rewards

By Rob Freeman
Have you ever wondered who writes the complex, hard-to-understand sentences and paragraphs that we find in our propane codes and regulations, such as in NFPA 54 and 58? What person in his right mind could come up with the following sentence out of a previous edition of NFPA 58: “If more than one appurtenance, or combination of appurtenances, is shown for any connection use, any one of the appurtenances or combination shown shall comply.” Wow, that’s a mouthful.

As a young service and installation guy working for our family propane business in the late 1980s, I wondered exactly who could write such a thing, and how they expected those of us working in the field to understand and abide by the rules that govern our industry. I laughed at the weird, stilted language, but more importantly I was often frustrated by an inability to understand what the rules meant, or even how to comply with them. Being the son of a business owner, I had the luxury of a college education. However, most of the men I worked with had barely squeaked through high school, and I grimaced as I watched them flip through code books and try to decide how to do the right thing. A weird turn of events in my life eventually brought me face to face with these anonymous code writers, and over the long haul I must admit that I turned into one of them.

The turn of events that led me there, unfortunately, was a gas explosion at a rental house served by our company that occurred on a cold Friday night in the early 1990s. Responding to the scene to find fire truck and ambulance lights flashing, the charred home in a shambles, and a news crew lurking at the yellow tape line, the importance and implications of our industry regulations rushed at me with a sudden jolt. What had our family business done wrong? How could this accident have been prevented? The following Monday morning, a senior official from our insurance company was waiting for me at our office. His name was Joe Farris, and he looked at me with a stern and imposing frown. “Son,” he said, “your grandpa and dad built a nice little propane business. If you want it to survive, an accident like this can never happen again.” When I told him I didn’t know how to get started in preventing accidents, he replied, “There’s a meeting of code and safety guys of the National LP Gas Association next week. You’re coming with me.” And so I did.

My first view of the Technology and Standards Committee of the National LP Gas Association (now the National Propane Gas Association; NPGA) was a gathering of gray-haired men arguing with each other in a series of conference rooms over sometimes trivial, and at other times critical, topics. In one room, an hour-long argument was being held over the exact definition of the term “bulk plant.” In another, there was a debate about when and where to leak test gas systems. In a third, a group was talking about the challenge of converting every 20-lb cylinder in the United States from the POL valve to the new OPD valve. I was as fascinated by the process as the subject matter. These men would turn red, bluster, shake their fists, and at times insult each other in the conference room. During breaks, these supposed enemies would come together and laugh, throw their arms around each others’ shoulders, and plan on dinner together later. What exactly was going on? Did they hate or like each other, or both?

It was during breaks, at social hours, and at dinner afterward that I began to see the benefit of what this group could do for our family business. In this crowd were professional accident investigators, regulatory officials, engineers, equipment manufacturers, and safety directors of large propane companies, as well as owners of smaller propane companies. They were eager and open to share ideas, policies, and best practices to create a safety culture for businesses like our own. Someone gave me their company’s safety manual. Another handed me a new, easy-to-use leak-testing kit. I left the meeting after three days feeling empowered and seeing some light at the end of a tunnel, but also wondering how I could give something back to this group, and whether I had anything to contribute. Just as importantly, could I ever fit in with these statesmen of the gas industry?

It wasn’t until my third meeting that I decided exactly what I could give back to this distinguished group. My gift was simple. It was my perspective from working every day in the field. Why was this important? While the tank maker, regulator manufacturer, code official, and corporate safety director were all at the meeting, there were few people in attendance who actually handled, installed, serviced, and used the products and procedures in their daily jobs. No one else in the room had recently had a truck delivery hose frozen to a tank in a cold rain or crawled under Mrs. Smith’s house to find a possible leak at midnight. After a meeting or two, I started to speak and describe how the proposals being brought up by the group could either work in the field or not. I decided then and there to try and give a voice to the men and women in our industry who were doing the job of actually serving the customer. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

In this day of increasing government involvement and oversight in our lives, it’s hard to imagine an industry that created its own rules and regulations, largely without government involvement. Yet that’s essentially what the compressed gas industry did in the early 1900s. The businessmen, engineers, and insurers of the fledgling LP-gas industry banded together under the auspices of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to create the regulations governing the safe storage and use of the product. The first NFPA standard for compressed gas, created in 1927 and covering gas in cylinders, was a mere four pages long. In 1931, the standard grew to 17 pages, and included coverage for larger stationary tanks as well as cylinders. The men who created this group came from many sides of the business. Some of those involved were managers or owners, such as Emerson Thomas, who had a large stake in Suburban Propane and ran a railcar leasing company. Others were engineers or insurance representatives. The 1932 NFPA Committee on LP Gases had 15 voting members, including six from the insurance industry. This balanced perspective of both business operators, engineers designing the industry’s equipment, and those responsible for ensuring consumer and employee safety, was a key component of the code’s early success, and remains equally critical today.

Given this heritage of self-imposed regulation, it’s easy to see why the propane industry believes it is capable and qualified to create its own rules and regulations. The Technology, Standards and Safety Committee (TS&S) is, in essence, a product of this strong “take care of our own business” attitude. NPGA’s TS&S Committee doesn’t enact any regulations directly. The committee serves as a conduit to create draft regulations that are then taken forward to the NFPA committees, the International Code Council (ICC), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other rulemaking bodies. Given that the NPGA proposals are generally well thought out and vetted, the success rate of our proposals is high. For the NFPA committees, the success rate is higher than 90% in some code cycles.

The original LP Gas Standards Committee was a diverse body in 1920, and the same holds true today, both in NFPA’s committees and in NPGA’s TS&S. Although NPGA as a whole is largely composed of marketers, the same is not true for TS&S. Here, marketers are a minority, and while the numbers change from year to year, they generally make up about one third of the total. Over the years, the committee has called out to NPGA as a whole for greater attendance and involvement from marketers, but it has been a tough sell.

There are probably several reasons for the shortage of marketer participation. First, code writing is perceived as being confusing and boring. Would you prefer to attend an NPGA board meeting in California, go to an NPGA government symposium in Washington, D.C., or sit through three days of TS&S regulatory code meetings in Minneapolis in March? In terms of drawing power, TS&S has little pizzazz compared to the other important work being conducted by NPGA committees.

Second is the significant time commitment. There are two three-day meetings each year, and active participants can expect several voting ballot cycles, conference calls, and interim deadlines. Few marketers, who generally wear many hats, have this kind of extra time to give away on a volunteer basis. A third reason may relate to tedium. Enacting a change in regulations is like growing a rock gardenit’s slow at best. Implementing one positive regulatory change, such as reducing the interval for hydro testing on a bobtail from 10 years to five, can take a decade to accomplish, if it ever gets done at all. Some accomplishments in the code world are best measured in decades rather than weeks or months.

Not only are marketers out-manned, but to an outsider looking in they can also appear to be out-gunned. The engineers, consultants, regulatory officials, and insurance representatives who comprise the bulk of the committee can best be categorized as seasoned veterans. Many serve not only on the NPGA committee but on many other code groups, including the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the Compressed Gas Association (CGA), and others. In short, they are professionals, and come to the meeting with a firm understanding of the process. For a first-time propane dealer attending, who may know worlds about tearing down and repairing a liquid pump, but who knows nothing about a PowerPoint presentation, the meeting can be both confusing and daunting. Small business owners are used to being active and getting things done. Sitting in a meeting room and arguing over a phrase in a regulations manual may appear to be a form of torture to someone who is used to productivity in his daily life.

Nevertheless, the TS&S Committee has its share of avid devotees. Several years ago, the committee gave a certificate of recognition to Arnold Simpkins of Rutherford Equipment, who, according to staff records, had not missed a single committee meeting in 35 years and who chaired the largest sub-committee at TS&S for 15 straight years. That’s 70 meetings in a row of attendance, in venues all across America! TS&S also has its share of outstanding marketer leaders. The best of these combine good public speaking and organizational skills, an understanding of technical issues, and an ability to listen to opposing viewpoints and create workable solutions. Not surprisingly, many of these marketer leaders leverage their skills and go on to direct NPGA as a whole. The best current example is Charlie Ory of Aero Propane in Arizona, a former TS&S chairman and current vice chairman of NPGA. Charlie’s easy speaking style and sense of humor allow him to engage in, and win, discussions without the fist-shaking and rancor of earlier generations.

Over the past two decades, I’ve helped create dozens of changes to NFPA 58, NFPA 54, the International Fire Code (IFC), and federal regulations. The ones I’m proudest of are those that make the job of the installation person or delivery driver easier and better. These include creating the provisions for the 2-psi gas piping system and the venting of second-stage regulators with PVC pipe. At the same time, our group has turned away hundreds of onerous and impractical proposed requirements for the propane industry that come from seemingly every quarter. Unfortunately, we haven’t made too much progress on making the language in our documents easily readable, though the incredible Sam McTier has made it his life’s work to do so. Luckily, we now have Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) training materials to clarify what the codes mean and how to comply with them.

All the while, I note when I look in the mirror that I’ve become one of the older, gray-headed men that I first observed shaking his fist in a meeting room so many years ago. As the younger members have turned into elder statesmen, the TS&S Committee desperately needs the next round of young marketer participants that are willing to enter the fray. We can’t promise a round of golf, a resort hotel experience, or even much fresh air during daylight hours. What we do offer is access to the best technical minds in the propane industry. You’ll learn about best practices, and worst practices, in the field. You’ll also learn of impending rules and requirements that are coming to our industry, months or years before they arrive. You’ll become a better public speaker, a better writer and critical reader, and hopefully a better negotiator. You’ll come to see our industry through the eyes of the regulatory official, who is in charge of public and employee welfare and safety. The TS&S Committee continues to evolve, grow, and change. A good example is our recent past-chair, Leslie Woodward, the first woman chair in the committee’s long history. Now, we need the participation of new involved marketers to continue our strength and momentum. Try TS&S. You just might like it!

Rob Freeman is president of Spartanburg, S.C.-based Freeman Gas, a third-generation family owned company with 23 locations throughout South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.