Evacuation Plans Due for High Rises in New York City
The New York Times - August 5, 2004
by JIM DWYER
More than 11 years after terrorists first struck at the World Trade Center, the city is still struggling to complete guidelines for evacuating high-rise buildings where thousands of workers would face vital questions of what to do if their skyscraper were to come under attack.
Under a new city law that takes effect at the end of September, though, the Fire Department is, for the first time, drafting rules for evacuations of large commercial buildings in case of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. The purpose of the rules, officials say, is to require owners of big buildings to at last prepare detailed plans, train staff members and conduct full evacuation drills of the building every three years.
Until now, owners of tall office buildings in New York and most major cities in the United States had been required to do little more than organize fire drills. Tenants usually did not leave the buildings, or in many cases, even their floors. "This is a dramatic change in how we view getting people out of buildings that have fires but also non-fire-related emergencies, like explosions, biological and chemical releases, any hazardous materials," said Nicholas Scoppetta, the fire commissioner.
Yet the new drills - which gained yet another jolt of urgency with this week's terror alerts focused on landmark buildings in the city - will continue to put heavy emphasis on what the real estate industry is calling "invacuations." In those situations, tenants would not move outside the building, but simply a few floors away from the hazard or to a designated refuge.
That strategy, which dates to the early 1970's, is based on considerations of both safety and practicality, officials say. The stairways in a building or the streets outside could be more dangerous than staying put. Moreover, many New York skyscrapers built since 1968 simply do not have enough stairways to allow all the occupants to go down at the same time when emergency workers are coming up.
Even so, all those involved acknowledge that persuading people to remain inside a building that has been attacked or threatened has become much harder after the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Since 9/11, a lot of people have made the decision to self-evacuate, for whatever reason," said Roberta M. McGowan, the executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater New York.
Vincent Dunn, a retired fire chief and an authority on high-rise fire safety, said the rapid collapse of the trade center's towers undermined the public's faith that such buildings could resist and contain fire. "On 9/11, the people who did not follow instructions to stay put were the ones who survived," Mr. Dunn said. "The people who followed the instructions did not survive."
In testimony before the national commission investigating the attacks, Alan Reiss, who had overseen the trade center for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey until shortly before Sept. 11, also said that the standard advice no longer carried weight.
"No one is going to listen to a fire safety director making an announcement that says 'stay and let the other people evacuate first,' " Mr. Reiss told the panel in May. "Everyone, including myself, and we have had a couple of fires in the building that I am now a tenant in - that fire alarm goes off and you smell smoke, everyone is down the stairs instantaneously."
That impulse can lead people into more serious problems, officials agree, and underscores the need for specific, convincing and enforceable rules to be adopted by the city.
Donald P. Bliss, director of the National Center for Infrastructure Expertise, said: "One thing you don't want to happen is evacuate people into a worse situation. If there's a secondary device, or some type of biohazard or other problem, you want people to stay sheltered in the building."
In the case of a car or truck bomb, shards of glass would be a devastating hazard, said Jack J. Murphy, the director of the Fire Safety Directors Association. A biological or chemical attack could make the stairs or lobbies dangerous. Part of the new emergency planning will require people familiar with building ventilation systems, who can make sure that ducts are shut off to prevent the spread of contamination, Mr. Murphy said.
The new plans could include the use of elevators - generally ruled out in fires - to move people who could not negotiate stairs. However, said Desmond J. Burke, who studied the emergency planning issues for the Buildings Owners and Managers Association, elevators serve as pistons that push air through shafts throughout a building.
The new evacuation plans are the first requirements under a law signed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in June, following a study of the events of Sept. 11 led by Patricia J. Lancaster, the commissioner of the City Buildings Department.
Other changes will come at a decidedly slower pace, including a requirement for backup power for stairway lights and exit signs, sprinklers and luminescent paint for stairwells. These will be made mandatory in office buildings between 2006 and 2019.
These improvements had been made inside the trade center after the 1993 bombing, and they were generally regarded as being helpful during the evacuation in 2001. In fact, some of these changes were originally recommended by a city task force in 1993, after the first attack on the trade center, but were not acted on until this year, after legislation proposed by the mayor passed the City Council.
A number of changes urged by Ms. Lancaster's task force were viewed with skepticism by the real estate industry, including wider staircases and special "fire tower stairs" used in older skyscrapers. She noted that the space devoted to staircases meant less rentable space on each floor. "One inch on every staircase in every high rise is hundreds of thousands of dollars," Ms. Lancaster said.
The city building code adopted in 1968 drastically curtailed the number of stairways required for skyscrapers, making it hard, if not impossible, for everyone in a tall building to leave at the same time, particularly if rescuers are trying to come up. According to a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the 1968 code effectively permitted the Port Authority to decrease the number of stairwells in the trade center from six to three in each of the towers - a change sought by the real estate industry so that more space on each floor would be available for rent. (The Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, has nine staircases at its base.)
That code also eliminated another evacuation feature that the real industry felt ate up too much valuable space: the fire tower stairs, a stairway protected by four inches of concrete that was entered through a kind of air lock that protected the stairway from smoke.
The availability of staircases at the trade center was a matter of life and death. Many people survived the initial impact of the plane crashes, but were unable to find a way downstairs, as five of the six stairways in the two towers became impassable.
The city task force decided that it would wait for the final report from the standards and technology agency before acting on recommendations to require more stairway space and fire towers in new construction, Ms. Lancaster said. She noted that computer models now are able to predict fine details on how many people can move through a staircase. One major financial company, while building a new headquarters, used a computer model to study how many of its employees would able to evacuate if three bombs were exploded inside 20 minutes on different floors, according to Ms. Lancaster. The plans showed that many employees would still be able to escape.
"You have to balance safety and stimulate economic development," Ms. Lancaster said. "If New York City wants to keep being the world's second home, we need its occupants to feel safe."
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