ANSI - American National Standards Institute

A Myriad of Issues

The 9/11 Commission found that communication problems and a lack of evacuation plans hampered rescue efforts in the World Trade Center. Is there a better way to prepare for emergencies?

WEB EXCLUSIVE, By Jennifer Barrett,Newsweek


Could more people have been saved in the September 11 attacks if the World Trade Center tenants had better evacuation plans and the first responders had been better equipped, informed and coordinated? Perhaps. In a report released this week, the 9/11 Commission—while praising the bravery of the rescue workers—found that poor communication and a lack of knowledge about evacuation “proved costly”—hindering rescue and evacuation efforts after terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York. An estimated 2,749 people died in New York, including 343 firefighters and 23 police officers. “Fire chiefs did not know what the NYPD knew, and knew less than what TV viewers knew,” said commission chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, in a joint statement after concluding two days of hearings in New York this week.

During the hearings, which included testimony from current and former New York fire chiefs, police commanders and mayors, commission members learned that emergency-service operators and Fire Department dispatchers did not pass on important information, and that few tenants in the World Trade Center had an emergency preparedness plan. The commission says it’s now focused on improving private-sector emergency preparedness, as well as the integration of the fire and police command system and communications within and between agencies. Members also stressed the importance of having nationwide standards for both the government and private sector in preparing for future attacks.

Some of those standards already exist. The American National Standards Institute, in coordination with the National Fire Protection Association, presented its recommendations earlier this year. Three months ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security adopted nine of the standards relating to equipment for first responders and for nuclear and radiation detection systems. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, in testimony before the 9/11 Commission, encouraged the private sector to improve its readiness through the ANSI/NFPA voluntary standards as well—calling them "essential elements" in preparing for a potential attack. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett spoke with Arthur E. Cote, ANSI vice chairman and executive vice president and chief engineer at the NFPA, about what went wrong on September 11 and how the new standards will address those problems. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The 9/11 Commission has cited poor communication and coordination as hindering rescue efforts in New York on September 11. What went wrong?

Arthur E. Cote: That’s an area in which I think we are still waiting for all the details. It looks to be as much a hardware problem as anything else—interoperability and compatibility issues. And we’ll have to wait to see what the commission has actually found out [in its final report, due July 26] before we can address how much of that was equipment not prepared to handle the volume, and how much of it might have been some other problems.

What went wrong with the communications equipment?

There are a myriad of issues here. In general terms, there is a bandwidth issue that has to do with how much space you have for emergency communications, which has to do with the FCC. When you have an event of this magnitude with a tremendous number of calls and events, you have to make sure you have whatever the dedicated band and frequencies are. There’s a lot of debate here. If you give up a piece of bandwidth for emergencies, then it is not available for other groups that feel they need it just as much. Still, the big issue with 9/11 was that it was such a huge catastrophic event that the analogy I draw is it was sort of like war. A lot of things don’t go as well as you’d like them to go. It is easy after the fact to go back and put it under the microscope with 20/20 hindsight. But I think it is not very productive to try and second guess some of those events.

The National Fire Protection Association developed emergency management standards in 1995.  So on 9/11, was it a question of the emergency responders not meeting the standards or that the standards hadn’t anticipated such a situation?

The NFPA 1600 document, as it’s known, was started in 1991 and [its] first edition came out in 1995. Originally, it was intended to cover general disaster-emergency management issues that you’d have from, say, a tornado, flood or hurricane. It also took into account major accidents, but certainly, when we first put this together, I don’t know that a terrorism event of this magnitude was considered … The sheer size of the event made it exceedingly difficult. And I think also if you look at the history of buildings—and not only in the U.S., but throughout the world—there have been very few events so large that it caused a complete catastrophic collapse of the building. That is a very unusual event. I think the feeling was that people had more time than they really did. Having said that, if you consider the fact that that the event cut off all egress paths above the point of impact and you look at the number of people above the point of impact against the total number of fatalities, a very large percentage of people got out of the buildings, which is quite amazing.

If you were unable to anticipate the 9/11 attacks, how do you anticipate potential future threats when creating these new standards?

You have to understand that we are an organization that develops 300 standards, we have 7,000 volunteer experts throughout the U.S. and around the world. The events of 9/11 have certainly refocused all of the organizations that deal with emergency preparedness and response. Everyone has that now as an element to be considered.

So how have the standards changed since 9/11?

From an emergency preparedness standpoint, the basics haven’t changed. The notion is you have to be prepared to get people out and have them be prepared for what the possible threats are—and terrorists would just be a new threat that wasn’t considered before. Where we have really seen a change is in design considerations. Some changes have been made that would require larger stairwells in super-high-rise buildings since you might have to evacuate an entire building, whereas in the past the thought was that with small events you could move people from one area of a building to another. There are also the kinds of things we saw around the U.S. Capitol building. You can no longer drive cars around the front. We put up crash barriers. There is restricted access to parking garages under buildings now and it’s less likely you would even design a parking garage under a building. All security issues for buildings are going through some rather intense review. The whole issue of access to areas, mechanical spaces, air conditioning equipment—all spaces that in the past people didn’t worry about access. Today you want to make sure you don’t have terrorists in those areas. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

I know the ANSI has recommended that the new standard be implemented nationally, with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies taking the initiative. What has the response been?

We certainly would like to see that happen. It’s a little premature in that we don’t have the final recommendation or report from the commission yet. Once that is in place, the report in and of itself will help focus attention. One issue is that you always have to get to the point where the people who manage the buildings believe that the threat is real and, therefore, believe it is prudent to do the things that we think should be done.

What are some of your recommendations?

It’s a case of determining what the potential hazards are—and they aren’t the same in all buildings. But it’s knowing that if you have an event of one kind or another, what the potential damage is and how you’ll react to it—meaning who needs to be contacted, what the evacuation plan is, and if people know what to do in an emergency. We know, after 100 years of work in this area, that the reaction time can make a difference if you have had practices. People have to know what it is you want them to do. A comment was made in the hearings about Morgan Stanley—they had people on 22 floors and lost only 12 people because they had a plan and worked the details and they practiced it. 

The 9/11 Commission said it has found that, despite the September 11 attacks, the private sector remains largely unprepared for a terrorist attack. Why do you think that is?

There’s a certain level of apathy and, unfortunately, I think we see in all sorts of safety-related endeavors that everybody believes it's going to happen to the other guy. That’s a broad generalization, though. There are companies and corporations throughout America and throughout the world who are truly model corporate citizens and know it is good business to be prepared. It’s not only disaster preparedness but business continuity … We certainly hope the Department of Homeland Security will use their influence to use the bully pulpit and put this issue out in front of Corporate America in a positive way that will reinforce and encourage them.

How unprepared do you think the private sector is?

We were involved in some investigation after the first bombing in the World Trade Center, and it was necessary in that event to evacuate both buildings, and it took a lot longer than a lot of people thought it would … On 9/11, a large percentage got out in a much shorter time frame than had occurred in 1993 [after the bombing], so I believe there was improvement there. Was it perfect? No. Did it encompass all businesses? No. But I have to believe that there was improvement—and that other businesses are better prepared today too than before 9/11.

Is the U.S. better prepared now to handle another attack?

We are better prepared, but are we all the way there? No, I don’t think so. And we need to continue to educate people and make sure they are diligent. But I am very optimistic. I think our fire services and our police forces are better equipped or, at least, they are sensitized to the fact that these are issues they need to deal with. But I don’t think they’re as well equipped as they should be and the challenge of the Department of Homeland Security is still to get the funding for the first responders to handle these events more adequately.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.


From Newsweek, May 22, 2004, and © 2004 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The laws prohibit any copying, redistribution or retransmission of this material without express written permission form Newsweek.