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Fall 2003 Vol. 3 No. 3

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Building damage during the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., Federal Emergency Management Agency news photo

New Trails

Searching for Ways to Protect People, Property From Fire and Earthquakes

Despite considerable progress made over the past 40 years in reducing the damage that fires and earthquakes cause, the human and financial losses are still unacceptably high. The costs from fire-related property losses and implementation of fire safety measures total between $100 billion to $200 billion per year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has estimated that expected annual financial losses from earthquakes are on the order of $4.4 billion, while a single, large metropolitan earthquake could cause $100 billion to $200 billion in damage.

These dramatic figures are highlighted in two new reports from the National Research Council that call for increased efforts to reduce such losses. New engineering tools and simulations should be developed, the reports say, because fire safety practices need to be more scientifically based and much remains to be learned about minimizing earthquakes' destructive effects.

"There are still significant gaps in our knowledge of fire safety science and fire loss mitigation strategies," said David Lucht, director of the Center for Firesafety Studies at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. "We need to more aggressively pursue an integrated approach to improve building performance and reduce the human suffering and economic losses due to fire."

Likewise, progress in understanding the detailed mechanisms by which earthquakes cause damage is still relatively slow. "Earthquakes will continue to occur, but the disasters that they cause will be a thing of the past if we can minimize damage to the built environment," said W.F. Marcuson III, director emeritus of the Geotechnical Laboratory at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss.

To improve fire mitigation, one of the reports recommends that the National Science Foundation provide funding and leadership for a national multidisciplinary program to enhance design and construction of buildings and develop better strategies to protect the people and equipment housed in them. The program would help not only to advance the state of knowledge in this field but also to strengthen university-based fire research, which has "all but evaporated in the United States over the past three decades," the report says.

The second report reviews a major NSF initiative called the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), which will allow researchers and earthquake engineers around the world to interact and learn from each other, and increase the talent pool and knowledge base about earthquakes. A longtime major supporter of earthquake engineering research, NSF has awarded $80 million in grants to establish NEES. The experimental sites funded through this program will allow simulation of complex problems in seismology that formerly had to await an actual earthquake in order to be studied and involved random, uncontrolled conditions.

Important outcomes of the NEES program would be the development of performance-based codes to make buildings safer with innovative and inexpensive materials and practical guidelines for building occupants to follow during an earthquake. For example, a code for seismic design would require that buildings perform a certain way for a given intensity of ground movement and not exceed a specified level of damage.

To be successful, these programs will require effective partnerships between physical scientists, engineers, and social and policy scientists and should include education and outreach activities to the greatest extent possible, the two reports say. For instance, visualization tools should be used to communicate findings to stakeholders, such as government officials, students, teachers, and the public at large.

"Better coordination of research efforts and increased outreach under these multidisciplinary initiatives could create significant opportunities to leverage research dollars and improve emergency planning and response, and post-event assessment and recovery," Lucht said.
  -- Patrice Pages

Making the Nation Safe From Fire: A Path Forward in Research. Committee to Identify Innovative Research Needs to Foster Improved Fire Safety in the United States, Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (ISBN 0-309-08970-0; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). The committee was chaired by David Lucht, professor and director, Center for Firesafety Studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Preventing Earthquake Disasters: The Grand Challenge in Earthquake Engineering. Committee to Develop a Long-Term Research Agenda for the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (ISBN 0-309-09064-4; $32.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). W.F. Marcuson III, director emeritus, Geotechnical Laboratory, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Miss., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

     Both reports are available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences