Proposal for a World Trade Center Disaster Commission

Prepared by Professor Glenn P. Corbett
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
March 6, 2002

Need for the Commission
In the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, it has become readily apparent that many issues involving high-rise building construction, emergency evacuation procedures, firefighting operations, and other important concerns must be analyzed collectively in order to learn from the disaster and apply the lessons to the future.

Many Americans live and work in high-rise buildings, so it is essential that we learn as much as possible about this disaster.

The establishment of a Commission will allow for the various public and private research efforts currently underway to come together "under one roof" and share information, a critical issue when studying a disaster as complex as the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The multi-disciplinary aspects of the World Trade Center necessitate that the disaster be investigated in that context, allowing for the identification of interrelationships between the areas of concern.

Commission Objectives

  • The Commission will direct an investigation and coordinate a comprehensive review of all aspects of the World Trade Center disaster. The Commission will take a "lessons learned" type of approach in its review and analysis of the disaster.
  • The Commission will utilize the expertise of nationally recognized individuals in the fields of architecture, engineering, forensic investigation, construction methods and materials, fire protection and life safety, human behavior, firefighting, search and rescue, terrorism, building/fire code development and emergency management.
  • The Commission will prepare a set of detailed recommendations for the improvement of building designs, building materials, safety regulations and building codes, as well as emergency response procedures.
  • The Commission could form the model for a portion of an enhanced disaster investigation protocol.

Establishment of the Commission
Given the role of FEMA in disaster response and hazard mitigation, it is logical to have the Commission operate under the auspices of FEMA. FEMA would play the role of coordinator and provide staff and facility support (including the development of a final report).

The Commission should have a "core" of eight primary members, including a chairman, a vice chairman, and designated leaders from each of the six focus areas identified below. All eight of the Commissioners would meet on a regular basis to share information, identify needs, and to direct the overall activities of the Commission.

Six Primary "Focus Areas" of Commission

  1. Building Design
  2. Building Collapse
  3. Firefighting Procedures
  4. Building Evacuation
  5. Search and Rescue Operations
  6. Building Codes and Regulations

    Examples of "Focus Area" Inquiries

    Building Design

    • Identify general design concepts ("lightweight" construction, loads, etc.).
    • List fire protection features in original design and improvements.
    • Describe fire protection and life safety upgrades after 1993 attack.

    Building Collapse

    • Create chronology of events leading to collapse.
    • Examination of physical evidence to identify failure mode(s) leading to collapse.
    • Examination of physical evidence to assess material behavior.
    • Model fire behavior (temperature, heat release rate, etc.), including contribution of jet fuel.
    • Create fire and structural models to illustrate building conditions for duration of incident.

    Firefighting Procedures

    • Interview surviving firefighters, review radio transmissions, and analyze reports to create as complete a "picture" of firefighting response as possible.
    • "Map" and analyze incident command structure.
    • Establish the overall goals of incident command officers, including use of "standard" high-rise firefighting strategies.
    • Enumerate tactical problems encountered by fire companies.
    • Detail radio transmission problems at incident.

    Building Evacuation

    • Analyze building evacuation procedures, including directions given to occupants by building staff.
    • Interview evacuees to collect their observations and experiences during evacuation.
    • Model the evacuation including time of egress, points of constriction, crossovers delays, etc.
    • Highlight the effects of improvements made after 1993 attack.

    Search and Rescue Operations

    • Detail coordinated effort between FDNY and USAR teams.
    • Establish impact of "self-responders" on rescue operations.
    • Analyze performance of "tools and technologies" used in search efforts (robots, "listening devices," cutting equipment, etc.).
    • Detail efforts of maintaining "scene safety."

    Building Codes and Regulations

    • Establish national standards/codes in effect at time of construction.
    • Identify the deficiencies of ASTM E-119 (a national test standard that establishes structural fire resistance of various fire resistive materials) when compared with the fire conditions experienced during the incident.
    • Review the high-rise requirements found in current national building codes in context of this incident.
    • Correlate accepted terrorism design strategies with this incident and develop design criteria for inclusion in building codes.

    The Final Report of the Commission
    Upon completion of the investigation and research efforts, a final report should be issued. The report will tell the story of the disaster, highlight the lessons learned, identify additional research needs, and provide a set of specific recommendations. General examples of recommendations could include the following:

    • Identification of building/fire code provisions that need to be added/updated/deleted.
    • Procedural changes for fire service response to high-rise and terrorist incidents
    • Changes in evacuation procedures and egress capacity criteria.

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