Did Lenient Fire Codes Make 9/11 Worse?
September 26, 2002 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Did Lenient Fire Codes Make 9/11 Worse? Tony Fitzpatrick, the designer of the London Millennium Bridge, developed computer simulations with the help of an engineering consulting firm, in order to generate new suggestions for safeguarding buildings from terrorist attack. Fitzpatrick's conclusion: In the end, ordinary fire codes might have saved the World Trade Center victims.
posted by jonp72 (10 comments total)
Your second link is to Gateshead's Millennium Bridge over the Tyne, which I don't think Fitzpatrick designed. The ARUP site has info on the London one.
posted by liam at 9:50 PM on September 26, 2002

Wasn't London's Millennium Bridge several months late in opening because of design errors leading to excessive swaying? Casting stones, and all that...
posted by Vidiot at 10:12 PM on September 26, 2002

the federal government warning everyone to stay home that day "might have saved the World Trade Center victims".
posted by centrs at 11:04 PM on September 26, 2002

Wasn't London's Millennium Bridge several months late in opening because of design errors leading to excessive swaying? Casting stones, and all that...

That was addressed in the link. You did read it first, right?

the federal government warning everyone to stay home that day "might have saved the World Trade Center victims".

Yeah, see, the problem with that comment is how it isn't relevant. That's my problem with it anyway. They're talking about some legitimate safety methods that could (and probably should) be taken to save lives in the case of a fast-moving fire like the one that errupted after the building was hit.
posted by The God Complex at 11:40 PM on September 26, 2002

yeah, see, we can torture ourselves with woulda shoulda coulda's for the rest of our lives. i'm completely *for* having viable evacuation procedures in tall buildings in the event of fire. it's absolutely irresponsible that this is just now occurring to people. the attack was intended to be devastating. if the wtc had had an effective evacuation procedure it probably wouldn't have been a target to begin with. another building would have been chosen. i don't think it helps the families of the victims to have pointed out to them the various ways their loved ones could have been saved when the simplest solution would have been for the attacks to not have occurred at all.

it's great that we have learned how to help people in the future. if the information had been presented that way then that would be fine. it is an untested theory though. to speculate that it would have saved the lives of the people in those buildings is, to me, rather disingenuous. the quote from the article, used in the fpp, also makes it sound like there were no ordinary fire codes in place which is bullshit. the fire codes the engineer is talking about are not standard or ordinary just more effective.
posted by centrs at 1:04 AM on September 27, 2002

A couple of weeks ago in london there was a documentary about the inadequate fireproofing in the the World Trade Centre. They pointed the finger at the fire-proofing company.
While there seemed to be some truth in it, I couldn't help but think - no the real problem here was that two huge passenger jets, laden with fuel, were deliberately flow into the world's tallest buildings.
posted by funkuncle at 3:35 AM on September 27, 2002

Yeah, I did read the link...and Fitzpatrick comes across to me at least as arrogant, and that was my oblique, not-very-well-phrased way of pointing out that if he'd been as aware of the "brutal realities of the world" as he claims to be, the Millennium Bridge wouldn't have been such a boondoggle.

As the link also points out, his recommendations aren't really anything that the FDNY hasn't been saying for a long time already.
posted by Vidiot at 7:20 AM on September 27, 2002

I'm not saying better fire codes would have made 9/11 a walk in the park. The sheer fact that planes were piloted into buildings means that the passengers on the planes were good as dead. However, I think Fitzpatrick is right to some extent. With different building standards in place, the World Trade Center attack might have only killed hundreds instead of thousands. The fact that an arrogant British architect and New York City fire inspectors have been saying the same thing about the WTC should give us pause. BTW, the problems with the Millennium Bridge have been fixed. The only reason it could be called a boondoggle is that the problem weren't fixed in time for the actual millennium.
posted by jonp72 at 11:16 AM on September 27, 2002

There is probably no profession as open to seeing failure as a learning process as structural engineering. The very example of the Millennium Bridge should show that. Engineers have a long history of professionalized self-critique. If a building collapses for any reason, the cause is investigated and identified. If it is a preventable engineering problem, the profession learns from this and tries to avoid it in the future. Still, that doesn't mean there's always agreement about the reasons, or solutions -- and in an event as complex as the WTC, there's a lot of different things going on.

Clearly, the basic engineering of the buildings both contributed to the collapse, but also kept them standing long enough for 99% of the people inside to escape. We're beginning to have an idea of what worked, and what didn't, in that despite that success a whole lot of people died both without warning and without possibility of escape. Those parts, we'll want to fix reeeeal gooood.

There are also obvious divergences of interest between structural engineers, emergency services planners, architects, and developers -- not to mention the people who live or work in the buildings. This actually happens all the time, but rarely so much out in public. It's a little like being able to eavesdrop on an NTSB plane crash investigation. Was it the pilot? The air controller? The maintenance crew? The manufacturer? Often the result is actually a complex interaction between elements, which may work individually but placed together combine in a terrible synergy.

We do know that fire in skyscrapers is a relatively rare problem. There hasn't been another case of a tall building collapsing due to fire alone; WTC 7 is considered the first. For the most part, then, fire containment strategies work. The WTC provides a unique opportunity for studying what happens when all the rules are broken and you have a major out-of-control fire, the type of fire that everybody believed would never happen in a steel skyscraper. (Everybody, that is, except for some curmudgeonly fire chiefs and Hollywood producers.) It isn't necessarily that we could have stopped 2800 people from dying last fall, but that we may be able to use this event to learn how to prevent more people from dying in "impossible" fires in the future.

Often with a collapse there's one fatal error that can be found -- like the mis-manufactured stanchions at the Hyatt Regency that let the walkway collapse. Still, there are always other things to learn in the same incident, and with the WTC, though we know the "one fatal error" in this case was a deliberate, conscious attack on the building, the trappings and eventual collapses played out with a lot of different lessons to learn for all parties. They'll probably result, in time, in sweeping changes to fire codes, building design, emergency services management, and maybe even zoning.
posted by dhartung at 11:34 AM on September 27, 2002

As a structural engineer i have to agree with dhartung wholeheartedly. The study of structural failures is of utmost importance because unlike most other fields where the evolution of a solution can be made rapidly (think of how many times a CS program will fail before it runs correctly), a structure must work the first time and everytime, or people will die.

For work (as a COOP) i've done a bit of research on the WTC, and the fire suppression methods and systems where a not a simple to understand part of the structure, but were ever changing with time. The original fire suppression system consisted of only fire insulation that was from 3/4" to 1 1/2" thick with either asbestos or non-asbestos insulation. In 1970 or 71 the insulation manufacturer switched from an asbestos mix to a non-asbestos insulation. In the late 70's and after the 93 bombing there were additional fire suppression systems added including sprinkler systems, asbestos abatement, and additional insulation was added all on a tenant move out basis. These updates were going on until september 11th. Overall the structures were to have a 1 to 2 hour fire rating, which means that the structures WILL FAIL after 1 to 2 hours...which is exactly what they did.

Considering how the structures where loaded WAY beyond thier designed range and that the initial impact nocked out most if not all of the fire suppression systems, in my opinion it's actually surprising that the structures lasted that long. Additionally other then possibly using a cmu or reinforced concrete core wall system (which probably would not have been a practical solution as the width at the base to support the dead load would have been prohibitive), there's probably not another method to pracitacally and efficiently build a structure of that size. And even if there was, i'm sure under those load conditions an eventuall structural collapse would have been likely.

Engineering is a give and take where efficiency and safety are equally as important, however safety is balanced within statistically likely loads. While it is important that structures of the WTC size do have addequate escape routes, it is also important to know that 1) loading a structure beyond it's design will cause failure, 2) fire codes are limited to realistic escape times (and note: most people in situations where it was possible to escape did escape) and structural materials properties.

For me the horror of the WTC failure was not knowing that they failed, but knowing that they were going to fail as soon as i saw the fire.
posted by NGnerd at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2002

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