Dismissing the exemplary performance record of high-rise steel structures in "pure" fires, attendees of a government-sponsored workshop on fire safety voted for a blue-ribbon committee to develop an integrated methodology for performance-based design of fire protection of steel frames. The recommendation topped a wish list that included an interest in developing models for structural performance under fuel loads, with a multihazard design approach.

With looming cutbacks, "what you do [at this workshop on fire safety for structural steel in high-rise buildings] will help us focus on issues critical to the construction industry." — Bement

Action on the list might be slow. "What you do here will help us focus on issues critical to the construction industry," said Arden L. Bement Jr., director of the National Institute of Standards & Technology, which sponsored the Feb. 5-6 workshop in Gaithersburg, Md. Bement is seeking ways to cut staff and delay research to absorb budget cuts.

Some attendees think research into fire protection of structural steel high-rises should not be a priority. According to a recent NIST-sponsored survey by Hughes Associates Inc., of the 17 buildings four stories or taller that suffered structural damage from fires not a consequence of terrorist attacks since 1970, only two had steel frames.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, "accelerated the effort and importance" of NIST’s interest in structure-fire interaction, which predates 9/11 — Grosshandler

The study also looked at the four steel frames of the World Trade Center, destroyed by attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But "our interest in structure-fire interactions predates 9/11," said William L. Grosshandler, chief of the fire research division at NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory. "The events of 9/11 [only] accelerated the effort and importance" of the lab’s pre-9/11 plan, he said.

Sept. 11 should not and cannot be a standard for design, said Jonathan C. Siu, principal engineer for Seattle’s Dept. of Planning and Devel-opment. "Do we want to change code requirements based on one data point?" he asked.

Each year, 3,000 people die in building fires that cause $5 billion in damage, said Grosshandler. But he later noted that most deaths are in residential buildings and not high-rises. And few deaths are caused by steel high-rise collapses, said others.

The 50 attendees included nine from fire-protection materials suppliers, eight from NIST, seven from fire protection engineering firms and seven from associations and code councils. There also were five structural engineers, two public owners, three academics and five from the Civil Engineering Research Foundation, organizer of the $75,000 workshop.


Several attendees claimed a pure fire catastrophe is an accident waiting to happen, thanks to recently reduced requirements for passive fire protection. They call for improvements in fire modeling and structural response, made possible by advances in computing power.

"With development of performance-based codes, there has been a return to explicit discussion of objectives...and performance requirements," said Frederick W. Mowrer, a professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We need to adapt current performance methods for natural hazards for better application to fire," he said.

The group’s other recommendations are to determine "precision and bias" of existing fire-resistance test methods; to define performance objectives for fireproofing materials and systems; to review and assess trends to reduce passive fire protection; and to develop and correlate models with fire test data.

In its vote for action, the group showed little interest in determining whether current codes are adequate. In reaction to that, one structural engineer warned: "If you want to do advanced fire engineering, you need to show the need and economic basis for it and the real increase in safety. If not, the effort is doomed to fail."

Those calling for change seem to advocate developing a new engineering discipline that would involve fire protection and structural engineers. Currently, architects specify fire protection and life safety systems. There were no design architects in attendance.

"It is important to keep in mind that society has a finite amount of resources to devote to improving overall building safety," said Robert J. Wills, a regional director in the Birmingham, Ala., office of the American Iron & Steel Institute. "Our ultimate goal should be to allocate resources in a focused, rational manner that will lead to real improvements in life safety and property protection."