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Tips for better, safer buildings
Report recommends updating standards, using fire-resistant materials for taller structures
NEWSDAY - Friday, June 24, 2005
BY DEBORAH S. MORRIS
The National Institute of Standards and Technology yesterday released recommendations to improve the safety of tall buildings across the country, an action plan that is both "realistic and achievable," the lead investigator on the report said.
Shyam Sunder said the draft report offers 30 recommendations for organizations that develop building and fire safety codes, and the state and local agencies that adopt them. The report springs from a three-year probe into the collapse of the World Trade Center.
But one advocate for safer buildings, while supportive of the recommendations, complained that they are too vague to reasonably think they will be implemented anytime soon.
The recommendations include updating and improving fire-safety standards, fire-protecting and structurally hardening elevators for use by first responders, having stronger retaining walls, using fire-resistant coating materials and technologies, and having stairwells that are not centrally located.
Sunder stressed that the agency, which is under the Commerce Department, has no regulatory authority, so the findings are nonbinding.
The recommendations "should greatly improve the way people design, construct, maintain and use buildings, especially high-rises," Sunder said at a news conference not far from the World Trade Center site.
But Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had concerns with the report.
"You can't take this to a code group and say here. ... Code groups deal typically in very specific numbers and sizes," said Corbett, who generally supports the findings.
"It's sorta like saying, 'Buy a comfortable shoe' and they are saying, 'Buy a 7 1/2 wide,'" he said.
He said he was disappointed that the report did not cite specifics, which could more easily be translated into code.
"The problem with ... it being so broad just slows the process down; it's going to be years before we get anything meaningful," he said.
Building safety advocate Don Bliss said codes must be adopted first by the National Fire Protection Association or the International Code Council before going to the local level.
He said the report is an excellent road map for those who create buildings codes and that it generally takes three to five years for such recommendations to be implemented.
But he stops short of saying the advice will be heeded.
"History has proven immediately after a catastrophic event there is a lot of interest in changing codes and standards, but as time goes on and incidents don't repeat themselves, it becomes more and more difficult to make things happen as people begin to look at costs."
The report also said improved building evacuation plans need to be instituted and the skills of building and fire safety professionals upgraded. It also called for improved access to buildings and emergency communication equipment.
The report suggests installing in buildings black boxes like those in airplanes to retrieve data after an incident and placing command centers away from the building under fire.
- Estimating wind loads for tall buildings
- Real-time secure transmission of data from fire alarms and other monitored building systems for emergency responders
- Stairwells that are not all centrally located
- Improved occupant preparedness for evacuation Installing fire-protected and structurally hardened elevators to improve emergency response activities in tall buildings
- Enhanced fire protection systems: sprinklers, standpipes/hoses, fire alarms
- The evaluation of the fire performance of conventional and high-performance structural materials, such as fire-resistant steels and concretes
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