The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced it would launch a full technical investigation into what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside, Florida, on June 24, 2021.
Due to Congress in 2002, the National Construction Safety Teams (NCST) Act had authorized the NIST director to deploy expert teams after the failure of a building that resulted in substantial loss of life or posed significant potential for doing so. The investigations of NIST are critical and their main purpose is to ensure the safety and structural integrity of buildings. NIST conduct technical investigations of building failures, issue reports and make the appropriate recommendations for improvements of building codes and standards. Furthermore, NCST provides NIST the ability to have access to collect and preserve evidence from the actual site of failure.
A few words about NIST:
NIST is a federal research laboratory with extensive expertise in engineering and many other technical areas. NIST works in collaboration with experts in industry, academia and government in order to support the development of model building codes.
NIST was established in 1901, and one of its first contributions to disaster resilience happened after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, when much of the city was destroyed. NIST’s work helped usher in code improvements that were designed to ensure that fire hoses had compatible couplings with all hydrants, so that firefighters from different companies could work together more easily to extinguish large fires.
Since then, NIST has investigated many failures and disasters, including the World Trade Center collapses and Pentagon attack on 9/11, as well as many hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes around the world. Most recently, NIST has sent preliminary teams to the Gulf area in 2017 for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; to Paradise, California, after the 2018 Camp Fire, which led to an ongoing study; and now to Surfside, Florida, for the Champlain Towers South Condominium collapse.
NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. To learn more about NIST, visit NIST.gov.
James Olthoff, who is undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and NIST director, at his statement on behalf of NIST said: “This is an unspeakable tragedy, and like all NIST investigations, we will conduct a fact-finding study to prevent tragedies like this in the future. We intend to undertake a thorough technical investigation into what caused the collapse, to ultimately make recommendations that would make our buildings safer and keep something like this from happening again. This effort will take time, but we will work on this as long as necessary.”
NIST has been working with other government officials at the scene of the collapse, and the agency will continue to cooperate with all ongoing local, state and federal investigations. NIST investigators will only enter the actual site of the collapse after it is deemed safe for them to do so and will not interfere with the ongoing search-and-rescue operations.
While a NIST investigation is intended to identify the cause of the Champlain Towers South collapse, it could also uncover potential issues for other similar buildings nearby and throughout the nation.
Leading up to this decision, a preliminary NIST team spent several days in Surfside, Florida, to determine if the event met the criteria for a full investigation under the NCST Act. The team found that the collapse met necessary criteria to invoke the act: It was a “major building failure at significantly less than its design basis, during construction, or while in active use.” In addition, NIST determined that “a fact-finding investigation of the building performance and emergency response and evacuation procedures will likely result in significant and new knowledge or building code revision recommendations needed to reduce or mitigate public risk and economic losses from future building failures.” The above concerns the entire area due to the fact that there are millions of high-rise condominium units in Florida alone, many of them near the ocean or aging.
Particularly, the NIST team will establish the likely technical cause or causes of the building failure while on its duty is the recommendation of specific improvements to building standards, codes and practices. Concerning the structural safety of buildings, NIST will recommend any other appropriate actions or research needed in order to be improved.
The team will provide regular updates on its progress to the National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee at regular meetings, which are open to the public. People are encouraged to help the investigation with video, photos or other information.
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