The National Institute of Standards and Technology on Oct. 26 released the final report on its investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center. Having studied and written extensively on the collapse, I agree with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert�s (R-N.Y.) statements at the time that the NIST investigation goes �far beyond� the collapse of the towers as a result of terrorist attacks and that �the protection of life is the highest responsibility of public officials.� It is for these reasons that I am opposed to implementation of most of NIST�s 30 recommendations for improving the way high-rise buildings are designed, constructed and maintained.

At the NIST Technical Conference on the WTC investigation Sept. 13-15, a number of points about high-rise and fire safety were made, including the fact that:

  • The number of civilian fire fatalities has been plummeting.
  • Firefighter fatalities have been falling to about 100 a year, caused mostly by heart attacks and traffic accidents.
  • Fire fatalities in one- and two-family dwellings account for more than 60% of all U.S. fire fatalities.
  • There were only seven fire fatalities in high-rise office buildings between 1985 and 1998.
  • In the 30 years since the installation of sprinkler protection has become commonplace in U.S. high-rise buildings, not a single major fire has occurred in a building that was fully protected.
  • Even though the NIST investigation report is 10,000 pages, NIST does not define the high-rise safety �problem� in the U.S. Nor does it include the rationale for many of its recommendations for improving the level of safety. Given the excellent fire safety record of high-rise buildings, that would seem to be essential.

    In 2002, the director of NIST justified the need to perform an in-depth investigation into the collapse of the WTC towers based upon the need to �harden� buildings against terrorism. Somewhere during the probe, NIST publicly abandoned the �terrorism� justification. So, what are NIST�s justifications for its recommendations? NIST now says that a �multi-hazard� approach to the design of buildings is necessary to provide an even higher level of safety than is already provided to occupants of tall buildings. The �multi-hazard� design approach envisioned by NIST assumes that a fire and another hazard will occur simultaneously. But NIST has neither identified, nor quantified the other hazards in its �multi-hazard� design approach concept in its final report.

    NIST suggests that we design high-rise buildings for simultaneous exposure to a fire and a hurricane and simultaneous exposure to a fire and a tornado. In my opinion, these hazard combinations make little sense.

    NIST has argued that designing high-rise buildings for such events is both �realistic and achievable.� Perhaps, but if �multi-hazard� exposures to high-rise buildings are rare events, how can we realistically predict the magnitude of such future events?

    Isn�t it more logical to concentrate on known hazards that occur daily and which can easily be addressed? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 40,000 Amer- icans typically die as a result of accidents on our roads each year. And the National Fire Protection Association says roughly 2,680 Americans died as a result of fire in one-and two-family homes in 2004. This means that more than 170,000 Americans have died in highway accidents and more than 10,000 in home fires since Sept. 11, 2001.

    It seems logical that reducing the number of these kinds of deaths ought to take precedence over the adoption and implementation of NIST�s recommendations to address �multi-hazard� exposure in America�s high-rise buildings. Will Congressman Boehlert, chairman of the House Committee on Science, perform �the highest responsibility of public officials� and put highway safety and fire safety in our homes ahead of implementing the NIST recommendations? Or, will he continue to ignore the slaughter on our highways and in our homes? Congressman, the choice is yours.

    Richard C. Schulte is principal of Schulte & Associates,
    Building Code Consultants, Evanston, Ill. He can be reached
    at 504-220-7475 or