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Spring 2002 Vol. 2 No. 1

Table of Contents

Pentagon crash site; photo by Jocelyn Augustino/Federal Emergency Management Agency

A Blueprint for
Saving Lives

Better Building Methods
Can Make
Terrorist Attacks
Less Lethal

One campaign in the United States' war on terrorism may unfold not in halls of state or distant caves, but on the nation's drafting tables and construction sites.

A building's ability to withstand a blast can make a crucial difference in the number of lives saved in a terrorist attack. The fact that more people weren't killed in last fall's attack on the Pentagon, for example, has been widely credited to a recent renovation of the building segment where the airplane struck. Structurally reinforced walls resisted collapse long enough for many people to escape, and blast-resistant windows didn't shatter and cause additional injuries.

Reconstruction of Pentagon after Sept. 11 attack; photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA Research and testing on such building attributes and the effects of bomb blasts has been carried out by a defense department agency called the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) since the mid-1990s. So far, the agency has applied its research largely to protecting buildings used for military purposes. But after September 11 no one would argue that these are the only structures vulnerable to attack. In a recent review of DTRA's blast-effects research program, a National Research Council committee urged the agency to step up efforts to share its research findings and building innovations with the civilian design and building community.

Reconstruction of Pentagon after Sept. 11 attack; photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA The agency should reach out to civilian builders through both existing and new channels, the committee said. By developing and distributing assessment tools and design guides, DTRA can help architects and engineers evaluate a planned or existing building's risks and include features that could minimize damage. And the added costs of incorporating such features could be kept down by folding blast-resistant features into a strategy that protects against a variety of hazards, the committee suggested. Installing shatterproof windows or hardening masonry walls, for instance, can guard against earthquakes and extreme winds as well as human malevolence.

Damage of World Trade Center and adjoining buildings; photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA The collection of data -- not just its distribution -- should also be intensified, the committee said. Bombings can be considered a double tragedy because medical and blast-effects information that could save lives in the future often go unrecorded in the chaos that follows an attack. The federal government should set up rapid-response teams to gather this data. Such information could help medical personnel, search-and-rescue teams, and builders prevent and respond to future attacks.

Could these "technology transfer" efforts pose security risks if information falls into the wrong hands? It's possible, the committee acknowledged; but the most sensitive data -- such as the design specifications for particular buildings -- could be kept confidential. The risk posed by keeping information out of the right hands, the report concludes, would be far greater.   -- Sara Frueh

Protecting People and Buildings From Terrorism: Technology Transfer for Blast-Effects Mitigation. Committee for Oversight and Assessment of Blast-Effects and Related Research, Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2001, 100 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08286-2; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $28.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Mete A. Sozen, Kettlehut Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. The study was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences