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Since 9/11, Most Americans Uncertain About Fire Safety in Tall Buildings

A nationwide survey conducted by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) reveals that only 7 percent of Americans feel safer from fire in high-rise buildings since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Because most people will always remember the images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, it’s understandable only a small percentage of the population would feel safer in tall buildings,” SFPE Engineering Program Manager Chris Jelenewicz said. “However, since 9/11, fire protection engineers have increased their scrutiny of extreme events and have significantly improved the science and technology that is needed to make high-rise buildings safer during emergencies.”

Fire protection engineers analyze buildings from the standpoint of how fires start and grow and how they affect people and property. They work closely with other professionals, including architects, state and local building officials, and local fire departments.

“With respect to fire, tall buildings have unique risks,” Jelenewicz said. “For example, fire-department ladders cannot reach the upper floors of a high-rise building, and it takes more time for people to evacuate during an emergency.”

In 2005, as part of the investigation of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommended fire protection engineers be included on building design teams. NIST also recommended significant changes to the way tall buildings are constructed to make them more resistant to fire and more easily evacuated during emergencies. Many of those recommendations resulted in changes to model building and fire codes.

Changes to the way tall buildings are designed and constructed made since the terrorist attacks include:

• The facilitation of more efficient building evacuations.

• Improvements in the marking of exits.

• Protection of the integrity of stair and elevator enclosures.

• Increased reliability of fire protection systems.

• Improved installation of structural fireproofing.

• Facilitation of improved emergency-responder operations.

“Although better building design and construction methods cannot stop determined terrorists, they can dramatically increase the number of lives saved in the event of an attack,” Jelenewicz said. “The changes to the way fire protection engineers design tall buildings have become the new norm in the construction industry and will certainly make our tall buildings safer.”

The SPFE survey was conducted online in January 2011. A systematic random sample of 1,000 adults within the United States was selected. Results were weighted by age, race/ethnicity, sex, and education to reflect population proportions. The complete survey is available here.

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