The National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Advisory Committee, the panel of 10 building and fire experts established to advise the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in its conducting of technical building failure investigations as authorized under the NCST Act, has submitted its first annual report to Congress (.pdf). The committee’s 23-page document commends NIST on the progress of the agency’s two ongoing NCST investigations-the building collapses at New York City’s World Trade Center (WTC) following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and The Station nightclub fire of Feb. 20, 2003, in W. Warwick, R.I., in which 100 persons were killed-and makes four major recommendations for more effective implementation of the NCST Act.
During its three meetings in 2003, the committee reviewed the progress of the two NIST investigations and concluded “that both were valuable with realistic and achievable goals.” The committee evaluated and assessed the activities of the two safety teams, provided guidance on procedures for carrying out the NCST Act, and advised the NIST Director on actions to improve the operation and effectiveness of safety teams. Additionally, the committee received and took under advisement a number of recommendations and comments from the public.
At the end of its first year, the committee feels that several key issues must be addressed if the long-term implementation of the NCST Act is to be successful. In its report to Congress, the committee makes four major recommendations to deal with these concerns:
- creation of a NCST Office within NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL) with permanent staff and initial funding of $2 million;
- establishment of a safety team investigation reserve fund of $2 million to be used at the discretion of the NIST Director to fund investigations when warranted;
- establishment of a program to familiarize local and state investigating authorities about the NCST Act; and
- a research program investigating the factors affecting human decision making and evacuation behavior during emergencies in buildings.
Along with these key recommendations, the committee advises NIST to seek methods for conducting NCST investigations in a more timely manner. Committee members feel that NIST’s response to building failures can be improved by:
- developing procedures for deciding if a safety team investigation is needed when an event occurs so that investigators can leave immediately to evaluate the failure site, examine physical evidence and interview eyewitnesses;
- reviewing and seeking relief from federal regulations and procedures (such as the Paperwork Reduction Act) that could impact a rapid safety team deployment or impede access to information;
- developing “first call” investigating teams who are prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice to visit a failure site within the 48 hours required by the NCST Act;
- facilitating cooperation with local authorities by fostering greater understanding of the NCST Act, the responsibilities of safety teams and the need for safety teams to quickly access information, materials and witnesses; and
- using the subpoena power granted to NIST by the NCST Act to gather information, collect physical evidence or gain access to eyewitnesses when other measures fail.
Regarding the ongoing NCST investigation of the World Trade Center fires and collapses, the committee reports that all of its recommendations and suggestions on this effort have been adopted and implemented by NIST.
Committee members expressed concerns that the investigation of The Station nightclub fire was being affected by the lack of access to certain key pieces of information, especially physical evidence being held by law enforcement authorities and individual attorneys. They recommend that NIST and the Department of Commerce study and advise how NCST investigators can carry out their work with state, local and federal agencies in the context of a criminal investigation to gain access to critical data.
The “crowd crush” that resulted during evacuation of both The Station nightclub fire and a non-fire incident at a Chicago nightclub a few days earlier clearly indicated to the committee that factors affecting crowd egress during emergencies are not well understood. Therefore, the committee recommends that NIST initiate a research project to study evacuation decision-making and human behavior during major building emergencies, including the phenomenon of “crowd crush.”
Under the NCST Act, signed into law in October 2002, NIST is authorized to investigate major building failures in the United States. The NIST investigations will establish the likely technical causes of the building failure and evaluate the technical aspects of emergency response and evacuation procedures in the wake of such failures. The goal is to recommend improvements to the way in which buildings are designed, constructed, maintained and used.
The NCST Advisory Committee’s 2003 Report to Congress is available online at www.nist.gov/ncst. The same Web address also provides links to detailed information on the NCST Act, NCST Advisory Committee activities, the WTC and Rhode Island investigations, and information on NIST’s investigations into building fire and structural failures.