President Bush late yesterday signed into law legislation giving the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) authorities to investigate major building failures in the United States. The authorities assigned to NIST under the National Construction Safety Team Act are modeled after those of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for investigating transportation accidents.
The act gives authority to NIST to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours, where appropriate and practical, after major building disasters. The law gives the teams a clear mandate to:
- establish the likely technical cause of building failures;
- evaluate the technical aspects of procedures used for evacuation and emergency response;
- recommend specific changes to building codes, standards and practices;
- 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
- make final recommendations within 90 days of completing an investigation.
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 the 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.
NIST is authorized to take the following actions based on the report it issues at the completion of an investigation:
- conduct, enable or encourage additional research as recommended by the investigation team; and
- promote appropriate adoption of the investigation team's recommendations.
A standing advisory committee will be created to advise the NIST Director on all aspects of investigations. Members of the committee will be recognized for distinguished professional service, possess broad technical expertise and experience, and have a reputation for independence, objectivity and impartiality.
Where appropriate, NIST will consult with other federal agencies in carrying out the act.
The new law specifically applies to the NIST World Trade Center (WTC) building and fire safety investigation that was formally initiated on Aug. 21, 2002 (go to http://wtc.nist.gov for more information). The study of WTC Buildings 1 and 2 and WTC Building 7 is focusing on the building construction, the materials used and all of the technical conditions that contributed to the outcome of the WTC disaster.
NIST has extensive experience and expertise in conducting disaster investigations following structural/construction failures, fires and natural disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. A fact sheet detailing this background and listing past NIST investigations is available online at http://wtc.nist.gov.
As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurements, standards and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade and improve the quality of life.