Focus spirit on Homeland Security

September 01, 2002 |

The worst disaster to strike the nation since December 7, 1941, occurred on September 11, 2001. What happened after that attack was the largest peacetime mobilization of the engineering and construction industry to help rescue those who could be saved and recover those who were lost. What lay ahead for the engineers and construction crews was the transformation of a hellish, unsafe 16-acre site into a safe, stable site that will eventually serve as a memorial as well as a development that will enable Manhattan to become more vibrant than ever.

The engineering and construction industry had never before faced such a daunting task — demolishing 11 million sq. ft. of office space that had already been partially destroyed and was completely unstable, while trying to rescue and/or recover more than 2,500 missing people. The logistics of the situation were compounded by the need to coordinate with law enforcement authorities in order to establish a secure perimeter to prevent another terrorist attack.

OSHA called Ground Zero the most dangerous worksite in the country — yet after nearly 2 million tons of debris were removed and more than 3 million labor hours performed on the site, not one recovery worker life was lost. The safety record for lost time was almost twice as good as the industry average.

Spirit, passion and teamwork were common elements exhibited by the engineering and construction community throughout the transformation at Ground Zero from September 11 to the final ceremony on May 28, 2002 (BD&C 06/02, p. 10). It is important to note that the community I speak about is not any single agency, contractor or engineering group. It is the total aggregate response of more than 100 contractors from across the country (as far away as California), dozens of engineering companies, hundreds of suppliers, equipment donors from far-off countries such as Sweden, and numerous federal, state and city agencies with personnel coming from as far as Hawaii.

The results from having hundreds of government agencies, contractors and consultants pool their collective strengths is proof that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In this case, there can be no better illustration of the power of public/private partnership. When these resources were combined, with everybody willing to give more to a task then they have ever given, the effectiveness of the team was massive.


What can we take away from this remarkable accomplishment? The lesson that the same spirit and passion our industry and government displayed during the rescue/recovery at Ground Zero need to be applied to homeland security initiatives. A future attack can be prevented or its effect mitigated by implementing security measures that will prevent a crippling blow in terms of lost lives or damage to critical infrastructure.

As engineers we can't prevent terrorists from striking, but we can do the following:

  1. Conduct security assessments, including threat and vulnerability analyses to determine where our critical infrastructure is most at risk.

  2. Design both low- and high-tech systems to allow early detection of threats, including real-time video systems with alarms, access control systems, intrusion detection systems, and baggage and cargo/container screening systems.

  3. Design and construct or retrofit critical buildings and infrastructure with hardened envelopes and physical barriers to improve standoff distances; retrofit key installations for blast protection; and install "smart" ventilation systems where appropriate.

  4. Design systems to mitigate damage when attacks do occur by having adequate means of evacuation, and design structural systems to prevent progressive collapses.

Funding these initiatives for every structure throughout the country is obviously not a possibility. But engineers and construction professionals have an obligation to use their technical skills to help protect critical infrastructure from suffering another crippling attack.

The key to implementing homeland security initiatives will not be in developing new high-tech options, but will require conducting threat assessments to determine where the real risks are and implementing the wide range of options in the most cost-effective manner. To do this, the public and private sectors must work together — quickly, smartly and efficiently — and never forget that the goal is to do their small part in helping deter another 9/11 from occurring.


Michael Burton is a senior vice president and regional manager at URS Corp., New York City. Formerly the executive deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Design and Construction, Burton managed the construction and engineering operations for the World Trade Center reconstruction.
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