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Disaster and Failure Studies & Disaster Metrology Studies


Extreme events test buildings and infrastructure in ways and on a scale that cannot be easily replicated in a laboratory – buildings and infrastructure are built without being tested at full scale. NIST has a long history of seeking to improve the safety of buildings, their occupants, and emergency responders through studies of disasters and building failures. Since 1969, NIST has investigated more than 40 earthquakes, hurricanes, building and construction failures, tornadoes, and fires.  These studies have resulted in better understanding of the sources of building failures and provided science-based methods to address the underlying causes. The improved understanding and science-based solutions are presented to standards development organizations for possible adoption into codes, standards, and practices. The Disaster and Failure Studies Program provides leadership, coordination and management for all EL disaster studies, with a focus on standardizing deployment criteria, investigative team activities, disaster measurement in the field, and data integrity. The DFS Program also oversees all activities related to the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act, which includes providing the Secretariat for the NCST Advisory Committee and annual reports to Congress.


Objective - To provide leadership, coordination, and management for (1) the conduct of disaster and failure studies, including the development and maintenance of an archival data repository, (2) promoting the implementation of recommendations from disaster and failure studies, (3) carrying out the statutory responsibilities assigned by the National Construction Safety Team Act, including the development of field investigation expertise and metrology.

What is the new technical idea? Field deployments after disasters are carried out by various organizations and institutions to better understand adverse disaster impacts on the built environment and communities, to document successful building and infrastructure performance, improve hazard characterization, to validate models, and to inform prevention and mitigation strategies that improve response and recovery efforts in future events. NIST leads the multi-disciplinary Disaster and Failure Studies (DFS) Program from within the Engineering Laboratory, and seeks to standardize disaster field deployment, assessment, and reporting protocols. This program implements these goals by: (1) monitoring events using a screening tool to evaluate whether decision criteria merit the establishment and deployment of a study team, (2) coordinates the establishment, deployment, operations and reporting of study teams, (3) ensures that the study team’s safety, health and environmental requirements are met including relevant hazard reviews, training, and personal protective equipment prior to deployment, (4) builds and maintains effective partnerships and communications with other federal agencies, state/local governments, stakeholders and the general public, (5) establishes and executes standard operating procedures and criteria for disaster and failure studies, (6) promotes the implementation of recommendations from all DFS investigations, (7) creates and maintains an archival data repository for DFS, (8) carries out the statutory requirements of the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act, which includes providing the Secretariat for the NCST Advisory Committee and annual reports to Congress, and (9) oversees a disaster metrology research program that interacts with other groups in EL, to directly inform best practices for (1)-(7).

Disaster studies evaluate the performance of the built environment during hazard events, associated emergency response and evacuation procedures, and the technical, social and economic factors that affect pre-disaster mitigation activities and post-disaster response efforts. In FY17, in addition to the continued support of the Joplin tornado recommendations’ implementation and the extension of the disaster data repository, the Disaster and Failure Studies program will advance field investigation metrology by developing field measurement tools and data collection techniques that efficiently and effectively collect and record field data, characterize the uncertainty in the measurement values, and provide field investigation data to the public.

What is the research plan?  The project plan comprises seven major activities: (1) implement and carry out statutory obligations of DFS; (2) conduct new investigations and field studies when appropriate; (3) promote the implementation of previous DFS investigations; (4) update and implement standard operating procedures; (5) develop and maintain a disaster data repository; (6) establish strategic partnerships and agreements; and (7) develop and carry out new disaster metrology research initiatives. Each of these activities has an associated research plan:

  1. Exercise authorities of the National Construction Safety Team Act by implementing and carrying out the statutory obligations of the Disaster and Failure Studies program including: (a) management of the NCST Advisory Committee by overseeing the selection and approval process of new members, conducting meetings, and assisting with the preparation of Advisory Committee reports to Congress; and (b) Management of the preparation and delivery of the NIST Annual Report to Congress in accordance with the NCST Act.
  2. Conduct NCST investigations and other DFS field studies when appropriate, which includes (a) maintaining a state of readiness and maintaining a roster of experts; (b) initiating investigations/studies including the timely and effective application of the decision criteria; (c) directing the completion of investigations/studies from initiation to the completion of the final reports; and (d) enabling and tracking the development of improved codes, standards and practices based on the investigations/studies findings.
  3. Promote the implementation of recommendations from previous investigations/studies for improvements to codes, standards, and practices. Specifically, in coordination with the Joplin Recommendations Implementation project, work with the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) Committee on Performance-Based Design (PBD) for Wind Engineering, and partner with others to provide technical support for the implementation of Joplin Recommendation #3 (developing tornado hazard maps for building design) and the eventual integration of the maps into a tornado design guidance. Also work with appropriate EL staff members, and external organizations including the International Code Council (ICC), the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other key stakeholders to develop code change proposals and guidance documents related to all recommendations made from previous investigations/studies.
  4. Update the standard operating procedures (SOP) as appropriate, and ensure the SOP is followed during investigations/studies. The SOP documents the process for ensuring safety during the conduction of investigations/studies through required training for field personnel, medical monitoring for select personnel, draft First Level Hazard Review templates for hazard-specific studies, which include field safety equipment, and coordination with the EL Safety Contractor, Office of Safety, Health, and Environment and the Medical Unit.
  5. Develop, maintain, and expand a DFS data repository that will include data from past and future investigations/studies. This activity will require the following key steps: (a) expand the pilot disaster data repository, developed using HUBzero technology ( and the data collected from the Chile earthquake, to include data from the Joplin tornado technical investigation and the Moore tornado reconnaissance. Release the disaster data repositories (Chile, Joplin, and Moore databases) for public access via NIST’s website; (b) explore user requirements to complete the design and architecture of the repository and its operating platform; (c) develop a cost estimate to implement and maintain a production version of the repository; and (d) implement the production repository including testing, security, training and population of data.
  6. Ensure effective national coordination in investigations/studies by establishing strategic partnerships and standing agreements with appropriate federal agencies, state and local governments, and academic and industry organizations. This includes establishing coordination mechanisms and protocols for technical activities and public communications with partnering program agencies in the NCST, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP), and the National Fire Prevention and Control Act, and providing information to other agencies, stakeholders, technical bodies, Congress, and the public about the DFS Program.
  7. Develop a DFS disaster metrology research program that extends from hazard characterization to long-term community impacts. Design and conduct research field deployments to study the long-term impacts of a community impacted by a natural disaster event. The deployments will test DFS protocols in the Standard Operating Procedures, test new software and hardware data collection technologies, and provide performance data and review of resilience assessment methods.

Major Accomplishments

Potential Impact

  • Release of the Joplin and Moore tornado data repositories
Created November 3, 2011, Updated April 15, 2024