Preparing for the Unthinkable

The attack on the World Trade Center highlights the vulnerabilities of high-rise office buildings -- and the urgent need to remedy them

When disaster strikes in the workplace, the remedy is usually obvious. New York City's 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 young women died, prompted fire-safety measures such as the law that requires factory doors to open outward and remain unlocked. Various mining disasters over the years led to the Coal Mine Health & Safety Act in 1970 and the creation of a federal agency to oversee mine safety. In 1993, a shooting rampage that left eight dead in the San Francisco law offices of Petit & Martin resulted in new state requirements that made 911 calls easy to pinpoint, even in an office building with a single switchboard. While many office workers called 911 during the shootings, police dispatchers sent help to the address next door because of confusion stemming from a shared phone system.

The catastrophe at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 may be the biggest workplace disaster of all time. But unlike its historical counterparts, where the cause was management negligence or the lack of security vigilance, the lessons are less clear. After all, how do you guard against the sort of terrorists who destroyed New York's twin towers and damaged the Pentagon by ramming them with hijacked passenger jets?

"There's no new silver bullet that has come out of that tragedy," says security expert Bob Disney, chairman of the council on global terrorism, political instability, and international crime, for the American Society for Industrial Security, an industry group of more than 36,000 security professionals. That absence of ready answers, as much as anything else, is what scares millions of American workers. What will be different? How can they protect themselves? What new corporate programs and safety measures can be put in place? Or, were these tragedies so beyond the realm of planning that nothing will change?


  The fact is that there is little companies can do to insulate themselves from the threat of passenger planes being used as deadly weapons against their buildings. "How could you expect XYZ Corp. on Park Avenue and 50th to protect itself when the Pentagon can't," Disney asks. "There is nothing a business could have done that would have prevented something similar from happening to a manufacturing facility or office complex."

And yet, the New York City disaster is a reminder that many businesses have been lax about implementing even tried-and-true practices that can reduce workplace risks. For instance, while it might seem pedestrian, many businesses lack adequate access-control systems aimed at electronically monitoring those who come and go -- the kind that require access-control badges to enter buildings, Disney says. In buildings without those systems, all visitors should be stopped at a central location and have their identification checked. Disney adds that visitors should then be escorted to whoever they have come to see. That's because thieves and other criminals regularly pose as delivery workers, roving through offices to plan their next crimes. "Many of these [security measures] are old hat," Disney says. "But many businesses aren't taking these basic steps."

Indeed, companies frequently underplay security risks because the task of developing a safety shield can be costly. A director of security in the New York City area can command a salary of up to $250,000, Disney notes. One option for businesses that can't afford such expense is working with other tenants to centralize building security. However that goal is accomplished, Disney hopes that the World Trade Center disaster will inspire companies to look at beefing up security. "We're talking about making sure that you protect yourself from the average bad guy that comes in off the street," he says, adding: "Not every bad guy is a terrorist."


  In fact, even though the New York disaster was unprecedented, there was one way in which it wasn't unique: engineers agree that the collapse of the twin towers was not caused by the jetliners' impact as such, but by the fires that followed. That fact is now focusing attention on fire safety. Robert Solomon, chief building fire protection engineer for the National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) in Quincy, Mass., says it's time for managers and employees to dust off their evacuation plans and pay extra attention to fire drills and safety information.

Different cities have different guidelines, but Solomon says high-rise towers should be conducting fire drills at least twice year. Fire-safety instructions should be part of employee training manuals and new-employee orientations. Admittedly, employees tend to get a bit anesthetized to the sound of alarms that go off too frequently, but he says they must learn to respect the drills. "There are a lot of nuisance alarms so people try to block them out," Solomon says. "But it only takes 1 out of 100 times for there to really be a fire -- and a problem."

Solomon adds that the fact that thousands were trapped in the World Trade Center towers when they collapsed may cause some to reevaulate standard procedures in the event of high-rise fires. Generally, building occupants are moved at least two floors above or below the blaze until it is contained. That's because a mass evacuation can take time, and can hinder firefighters as they try to climb the very stairs that employees are using to flee.


  At the World Trade Center, however, employees who followed ordinary procedure and remained in the buildings were trapped when the towers sandwiched. Solomon says he doesn't expect fire-safety officials to rewrite the book in light of what occurred in New York. But he says that authorities may draw up contingency plans to deal with extreme cases such as the plane attacks the ignited thousands of gallons of jet fuel. In such cases, an evacuation might be the only alternative. "The only thing I can see that could supplement the existing response plan is a contingency plan," says Solomon. "In that case, just get people moving." It can take two hours to fully evacuate buildings like the twin towers, he adds.

That's one reason why Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, believes it's possible that companies may now reconsider building super-skyscrapers: The cost of better safety in such buildings could be enormous. In the case of the World Trade Center, Petroski notes, it appears that the sprinkler system was knocked out of action. He says that buildings might need as many as four independent sprinkler systems as a failsafe, one located in each corner of a building. More staircases would also be an obvious advantage, since the more exits, the more quickly people can escape. The price? Hard to say. But it's easy to imagine that four times as many sprinklers would cost four times as much. "It's like any other business decision: How much is too much?" The Sept. 11 attack, Petroski says, "may very well ruin the economics of skyscrapers."

It's also possible that "tubular structures" like the World Trade Center may go out of vogue. A tubular design means that the building has a steel frame and a steel core, with office floors "floating" between them -- creating vast expanses of floor space without forests of vertical pillars. The John Hancock building and the Sears Tower, both in Chicago, were also built around the tubular principle, but with more steel reinforcements.


  Petroski expects to see more heavily reinforced buildings and fewer windows, since glass is the weakest link when it comes to structural strength. Another solution would be to require a skybridge, like the one on Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings. That way, if there's a fire in one building, workers can quickly enter the second and descend -- as long as the two aren't under simultaneous attack.

Such ideas may be only the beginning. As engineers, human-resource managers, security firms, and employees across the country begin to comb through the tragedy, new ideas and plans will undoubtedly crop up. Why not create international standards and globally recognized symbols for skyscraper safety, akin to road signage, that anyone could instantly understand in the event of a hasty evacuation? Why not mandate that all employees be feasibly able to evacuate a skyscraper in a maximum of 15 minutes -- even if it means giving them parachutes?

That way, if they have to jump, as at the World Trade Center, it won't automatically be to their deaths. It sounds crazy. But, until recently, so did the idea that the World Trade Center would cease to exist.

By Jane Black and Eric Wahlgren in New York