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What is the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act?

What is the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act?

The act, signed into law on Oct. 1, 2002, authorizes the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to establish teams to investigate building failures. These authorities are modeled after those of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for investigating transportation accidents. 

As a nonregulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST does not consider findings of fault, responsibility or negligence in its building failure investigations. 

NIST has completed three investigations under the NCST Act. Previous NCST reports include the World Trade Center final reports published in 2005 (WTC 1 and 2) and 2008 (WTC 7); the 2003 Station nightclub fire final report published in 2005; and the 2011 Joplin tornado investigation report published in 2014. Investigations of Hurricane Maria and the Champlain Towers South collapse are ongoing. 

What responsibility does the NCST give to NIST?

The NCST gives NIST responsibility to dispatch teams of experts, when appropriate and practical, within 48 hours after major building disasters.

The act specifically states that at least one member of each team must be a NIST employee.

The act gives the teams a clear mandate to:

  1. establish the likely technical cause of building failures;
  2. evaluate the technical aspects of procedures used for evacuation and emergency response;
  3. recommend specific changes to building codes, standards and practices;
  4. recommend any research or other appropriate actions needed to improve the structural safety of buildings and/or changes in emergency response and evacuation procedures; and
  5. make final recommendations within 90 days of completing an investigation.

What authorities does the NCST give NIST?

The stated purpose of the act is “to provide for the establishment of investigative teams to assess building performance and emergency response and evacuation procedures in the wake of any building failure that has resulted in substantial loss of life or that posed the potential for substantial loss of life.” Investigations are conducted under its authorities “to improve the safety and structural integrity of buildings in the United States.”

In this context, the act gives NIST and its teams comprehensive investigative authorities to: 

  • access the site of a building disaster; 
  • subpoena evidence; 
  • access key pieces of evidence such as records and documents; and 
  • move and preserve evidence.

What does the NCST say about NIST’s responsibilities for communicating to the public about structural failure investigations?

The act calls for NIST to brief the public regularly on the status of investigative proceedings and findings.

What happens after NIST completes its investigation and publishes a report?

The act authorizes NIST to take the following actions based on its investigation reports: 

  • conduct, enable or encourage appropriate research as recommended by the investigation teams; and 
  • promote appropriate adoption of the investigation team’s recommendations.

Who provides oversight of NCST investigations?

Under the law, the NIST director, in consultation with the U.S. Fire Administration and other appropriate federal agencies, maintains a standing advisory committee of as many as 10 people to advise the director on carrying out the act, and to review procedures and reports issued. Members of the committee must have received recognition for distinguished professional service, possess broad technical expertise and experience, and have a reputation for independence, objectivity and impartiality.

The panel is known as the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Advisory Committee.

On Jan. 1 of each year, the advisory committee transmits to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House of Representatives and to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report that includes: 

  • an evaluation of NCST activities, along with recommendations to improve the operation and effectiveness of investigation teams; and 
  • an assessment of the implementation of the recommendations of teams and of the advisory committee.

Does the act give NIST any authority to create and enforce reforms in building and fire safety codes, standards and practices?

No, the act specifically states that NIST is not authorized to require the adoption of building codes, standards or practices. NIST is not a regulatory agency, so it does not determine which building and fire safety codes, standards and practices get adopted by state and local governments. However, NIST researchers are active participants in many standards developing and professional organizations. Thus, NIST research typically provides the technical basis for new and improved standards, codes and practices. NIST works with other organizations to ensure that “lessons learned” from investigations are put to use. 

Created July 12, 2021, Updated July 15, 2021