Learning from 9/11 for future crises

By the time a bevy of reports are completed, 9/11 will be one of the most intensely studied disasters in US

Two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, James Kendra and four others from the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center were headed to New York to study how it would respond to its greatest crisis ever.

They quickly obtained access to the Office of Emergency Management, the Family Assistance Center, and the facilities set up to care for the exhausted rescue workers. From their observations, they concluded that creativity and improvisation – such as the Coast Guard, ferries, and anything else that could float moving 1 million people – are important in responding to such disasters.

"Our objective in disaster research is to learn what can be applied to future situations, to improve planning and improve responses," says Dr. Kendra, the research coordinator.

The University of Delaware researchers are far from being the only ones on such a mission. Over the past year, structural engineers, disaster specialists, private consultants, and the federal government have been busy interviewing, analyzing, and trying to draw lessons from Sept. 11. Some of the studies are already done, while others are just beginning. Emergency officials around the nation will read most of them and discuss them at conferences.

By the time everything is completed, "it will one of the most intensely studied disasters in the history of the United States," says Kendra.

Still, assessing performance after Sept. 11 can be touchy. At a press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized that the reports were not trying to lay blame on anyone. In fact, in a recently released study on the police and fire departments' response, the uniformed services are praised for their heroic efforts. Yet as John Odermatt, head of the city's Office of Emergency Management, says, "I don't think any agency can afford not to look at what they did."

Indeed, many agencies are reviewing how they performed. Last week, for example, New York released the report on the police and fire response. The study, conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., found problems with the New York Police Department in six of 16 categories, including such important areas as traffic access for emergency vehicles and the postcollapse search for survivors.

The McKinsey study also cited the New York Fire Department for a communications system that failed. Twelve minutes before the towers came down, for example, emergency operators – who were overwhelmed with calls – started to hear from people in the towers that the floors were collapsing. That information apparently did not get to the right people.

Even if it had, the report points out that the repeaters (electronic amplifiers) in the high-rise apparently did not work well enough, so it's likely many of the firefighters never heard the call to abandon the towers.

Now, Mr. Bloomberg vows that no matter how long it takes, New York will find radios that work in skyscrapers. The report estimates it will cost $150 million to $250 million to install new repeaters in all the city's high-rises.

In addition to the city itself commissioning studies, a sizable number of academics have jumped in. The University of Colorado, Boulder, using money from the National Science Foundation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has funded 17 studies. These have ranged from structural engineering issues (SUNY, Buffalo), to the role private business played (University of North Texas), to the effect of Sept. 11 on Muslim students (UC Boulder).

At least one academic, Dr. David McEntire of North Texas, says he was surprised by his study results: Business played a vital role and interacted with government more than he expected. For example, the city, which already owns many barricades, turned to National Rent-a-Fence to help secure the area.

In some cases, the analysis is just beginning. Last week, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said it would undertake a $16 million study that will look at why the towers burned and collapsed. The two-year study by the government agency will make heavy use of computer modeling to look at the structural steel, welds, and fireproofing.

"There are actually some very good fire-dynamics simulations, because the Department of Defense has been very interested in the effect of aircraft impact on structures," says Shyam Sunder, lead investigator at NIST.

The analysis will also look at more than 100 steel beams, including one that was directly below the point of impact. This might lead to suggestions on better ways to fireproof steel columns.

The NIST study will also include such issues such as stairwells and fire exits. Do they need to be wider, given the flow of people leaving the building while firefighters are trying to walk up them, carrying heavy equipment?

Furthermore, NIST engineers will study how well the elevators worked. Most were shut down very soon after the attacks. "The question is, should firefighters have access to them, and should there be a special one just for emergency response, and should it be strengthened for that response?" asks Mr. Sunder.

Such studies of other major disasters have resulted in changes in construction techniques and tougher standards. For example, after a 1999 fire in a town-house complex resulted in multiple deaths, including those of firefighters, NIST studied how smoke ended up in areas thought safe. The study results improved the understanding of firefighting.

But the World Trade Center study is the largest and most complex NIST has undertaken. Says spokesman Michael Newman: "This is the biggest thing this agency has ever been involved in."

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