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WTC task force finds vital disaster role for engineers

NEWS: Parsons Brinckerhoff chairman Bob Prieto is chairing an infrastructure task force looking at the implications of 11 September for the engineering profession. Diarmaid Fleming met him in New York.

LEADING NEW YORK engineers have convened to examine the role of the engineering profession in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

The group, known as the Infrastructure Task Force, aims to provide technical insights that could be applied to other cities worldwide in times of crisis (NCE 27 September).

Task force chairman Bob Prieto told NCE that one important lesson emerging was the need to involve engineers in disaster management.

Essential information relating to buildings and utilites was held in engineering offices, he added, but there were no formal procedures to release it.

'Communication between engineers and the rescue services was not in place. Engineers are not seen as part of the rescue effort, ' he said.

'But engineers haven't seen themselves as part of it either.

Much of the information stored on drawings can be read by engineers, but not by others. You hand a roll of drawings to a firefighter who wants to know where to put a hose and he won't be able to read it.'

Prieto said all planning applications should include a fire department plan providing information that would be of use to fire and rescue services.

Knowing who to contact was another problem. The task force agreed at its first meeting that points of contact for key staff within companies were hard to find. Communications difficulties in the aftermath made this situation worse.

'Within companies, key individuals should be identified and be contactable in an emergency, ' said Prieto. Contact details should be stored securely on the web, and made available in the event of a crisis. A system of accreditation should also be developed to enable people gain swift access to the site of an emergency.

Co-ordination of information on utilities and load capacities of streets needed improvement.

'There are hundreds of agencies which dig the streets of New York, but it is not well organised, ' he said. 'Thousands of drawings are created, but many are not stored electronically, making it very difficult to identify quickly where key utilities are.'

The task force is recommending that a complete set of subsurface drawings be made available electronically - a project carried out in Boston before work began on the Central Artery project.

Difficulties also arose in New York due to lack of information about the load carrying capacities of streets and the areas around buildings. The task force advocates provision of 'comprehensive drawings of load restricted areas' to emergency authorities to allow immediate access for large machinery needed in a rescue effort.

While engineers rushed to help, in America's litigious climate many of them could be personally exposed to 'professional risk'. On-the-spot judgments, for example regarding the stability of buildings near the disaster zone, had to be made in extremely difficult circumstances. While given in good faith, such information could leave engineers open to being sued.

Californian state law has 'Good Samaritan' provisions covering engineers and architects who help in this way. The task force wants similar legislation - to apply retrospectively - for New York.

Looking further ahead, the American Society of Civil Engineers intends to carry out a 'substantive analysis' of the lessons.

Prieto said it was essential that this got the necessary funding from the US government, but the costs were likely to be high.

'The study on Oklahoma cost $10M, so the World Trade Center is going to be many times that, ' he said.

Prieto believes some good could emerge from the tragedy in terms of redeveloping the city's infrastructure, another area where engineers play a vital role.

'We don't necessarily need to replace like with like, ' he said.

'We could develop a west side train route or an extension of the 7 subway train, or the construction of a new 2nd Avenue subway. These debates should begin immediately because the chance to obtain funding for new infrastructure to a city will never have been greater.'

Rebuilding plans for the area offers a chance that Prieto likens to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war. While decisions on what will replace the twin towers are some way off, engineers can influence the debate.

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