President Bush has signed into law a bill that directs the federal government to respond more quickly to building failures and puts the Commerce Dept.'s National Institute of Standards and Technology in charge of investigating such disasters. The legislation, which Bush signed late on Oct. 1, grew out of bureaucratic problems that slowed the investigation into the September 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

The National Construction Safety Team Act gives NIST broad authority to conduct comprehensive investigations into future building disasters, whatever the cause. NIST will name public and private sector specialists to investigative teams following building collapses. Lawmakers had looked to the National Transportation Safety Board as a model for the building probe teams, but unlike NTSB, the new teams will not constitute a permanent federal agency.

The measure also authorizes NIST to determine the cause of a failure, evaluate evacuation and emergency procedures and recommend building code changes. NIST officials will have subpoena power to obtain evidence and be allowed complete access to the site and relevant documents such as building plans. Under the legislation, non-federal members of the NIST-led teams will be considered federal contractors. That status will provide them with liability protection.

The legislation also calls for federal response to a building disaster within 48 hours.

NIST says it will set up a standing committee to advise it on the investigations. The agency says, "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."

The agency says the new law applies to its building and fire safety probe of the World Trade Center collapse. That investigation was launched formally on Aug. 21.

The bill was introduced in the House by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). In the Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) sponsored the measure. The House passed the bill on July 12 and the Senate followed on Sept. 9.