Even as rebuilding efforts begin to take shape at Ground Zero while repairs at the Pentagon move into the final stages, federal lawmakers are laying the groundwork for future investigations into building failures, determined to apply still more lessons learned from the aftermath of last Sept. 11. While both houses of Congress were approving some $5.5 billion in general aid to New York City during the week of May 20, the House Committee on Science was also meeting to discuss future emergency response. On May 22, the committee approved the National Construction Safety Team Act of 2002, which authorizes the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours of a disaster.
Sponsors hope the measure will reach the House floor before Congress adjourns in August. A companion bill already is coursing through the Senate.
The House version would give NIST subpoena power, an authority that some wish had already been in place last fall. On May 1, the House Science Committee held a hearing to listen to investigators detail the recent hurdles they encountered. Testimony pointed to bureaucratic confusion, hesitation and excessive restrictions on information flow that hampered the WTC investigators.
Afterward, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said testimony had "revealed a gigantic void in accountability for the investigation of building collapses and made clear the need to improve procedures."
The National Construction Safety Team Act would give NIST teams a clear mandate to establish the likely technical cause of building failures; evaluate procedures used for evacuation and emergency response; recommend specific changes to building codes, standards and practices; and make final recommendations within 90 days of completing an investigation. NIST would have comprehensive investigative authorities, similar to those of the National Transportation Safety Board, to access the site of a building disaster, subpoena evidence, access key pieces of evidence and move and preserve evidence. The bill proposes that NIST receive $25 million per year for future investigations.
NIST Director Arden Bement outlined a proposed program with three key elements: a 24-month building and fire safety investigation into the collapse of WTC towers 1, 2 and 7; a multi-year research and development program to provide a technical basis for improved building and fire codes, standards and practices; and, finally, an industry-led information dissemination and technical assistance program to help owners, designers, contractors and emergency rescue personnel better respond to crisis.
Still, Bement did observe that Towers 1, 2 and 7 are the only known instances of total structural collapse in which fires played a significant role. "These disasters provide a unique source of information to understand the complexities associated with the dynamics of real building fires and the collapse vulnerability of buildings to fires," he told the committee.
Congress additionally approved a $16 million supplemental appropriation to cover the cost of further in-depth investigation into the collapses in New York and at the Pentagon. So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid for the studies done to date.