President Bush last month signed legislation that gives the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) the authority to investigate major U.S. building failures. It is expected to help overcome the problems that plagued the investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center. The National Construction Safety Team Act gives NIST authority to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours after major building disasters. It has a clear mandate to:
Establish the likely technical cause of the failure.
Evaluate technical aspects of procedures used for evacuation and emergency response.
Recommend changes to building codes, standards, and practices.
Recommend research and appropriate actions needed to improve the structural safety of buildings, and emergency response and evacuation procedures.
Make final recommendations within 90 days of completing an investigation.
NIST will have the authority to access the disaster site; subpoena evidence; access key pieces of evidence such as records and documents; and move and preserve evidence.
"The attack on the World Trade Center is, we hope, unique. But the collapse of those two seemingly immovable objects has lessons for a wide variety of buildings facing a wide variety of relatively common circumstances," said House sponsor and Chairman of the House Science Committee Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), lead sponsor of the bill. "[This law] will ensure that we are able to learn and apply those lessons, not only in the case of the World Trade Center, but in future cases, as well."
The authorities assigned to NIST are modeled after those of the National Transportation Safety Board for investigating transportation accidents.