10 Years After 9/11: Building and Fire Codes Revamped

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the wheels of investigation would soon begin churning to study and understand why the towers collapsed and what lessons could be learned.
Published: September 15, 2011

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC), the wheels of investigation would soon begin churning to study and understand why the towers collapsed and what lessons could be learned to help prevent such horrific loss of life. What current building and fire codes, standards and practices warranted revision? What improvements could be made to building designs, construction and maintenance?

By late September 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded a Building Performance Assessment Team (BPAT) study, initiating an analysis to determine the sequence of events and failures that resulted in progressive building collapse of WTC 1 and 2, as well as WTC 7. Yet even before the release of the final BPAT report in May 2002, experts roundly criticized the scope of it as woefully insufficient.

Calls for more thorough investigation led to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) commencing its report, “National Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster.”

The two-year study was divided into multiple projects that included analysis of building and fire codes and practices; investigation of active fire protection systems; occupant behavior, egress and emergency communications; fire service technologies and guidelines; among others.

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The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) remained intimately engaged throughout completion of the BPAT and NIST studies, including taking part in public hearings, as it formulated plans to revise codes where necessary, based on results from the studies.

“Even though the attacks happened in September 2001, it was probably two years before we saw some changes start to come about in the codes, and even today there are still things we are working on as a result of what happened 10 years ago,” says Robert Solomon, NFPA’s division manager for building and life-safety codes.

Among the fruits to have resulted from the NIST study were 30 recommendations to be introduced into the voluntary consensus process used to develop building and fire codes and standards in the United States. More than 20 of the recommendations have resulted in code changes to date.

“We are still finalizing some recommendations and are only just scratching the surface for others,” Solomon says.

The NIST recommendations apply mainly to high-rise buildings. The code definition of a “high rise” is a structure that exceeds seven stories. Half of the recommendations apply to high-rise structures, while the rest could be applied to any building.

Among the NIST recommendations that have resulted in code changes:

  • Need for redundancy in fire protection systems that are critical to structural integrity
  • Adapt control panels at fire/emergency command stations to accept and reliably interpret more information from the active fire protection systems that provide tactical decision aids to ground commanders, including water-flow rates from pressure and flow measurement devices
  • Install fire-protected and structurally hardened elevators to improve emergency response activities in tall buildings by providing timely emergency access to responders, and allowing evacuation of mobility-impaired building occupants

Other NIST recommendations that NFPA could eventually mandate include the capability to deliver situational information to first responders by using CCTV cameras in places like stairwells and elevator lobbies. NIST also recommended establishing a way to send real-time fire alarm control panel (FACP) data to offsite locations, including first responders en route to an emergency.

“It is a great concept but people are still trying to figure out how that technology is going to work,” Solomon says. “How are we going to make the [FACP] or the CCTV system talk to the laptop in the fire truck?”

The events of 9/11, as well as Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, also spawned the need to reliably communicate to large groups of people in real-time. Thus, mass notification installation guidelines were included into annex material in the 2002 and 2007 editions of NFPA 72. These did not become enforceable, however, until the release of the 2010 edition’s Chapter 24, “Emergency Communications Systems.”

“In another 10 years from now we might still be trying to figure out better ways to do some of these things that we’ve already settled on for now,” Solomon says. “The codes tend to be very dynamic. They don’t remain static for very long.”

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series