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Engineers Seek Ways To Warn Of Failures ‘Waiting to Happen’

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Work on the nation's first public repository for data on disaster and failure events is under way. The National Institute of Standards and Technology expects to launch a pilot website for a broad disaster database early next year. Events stemming from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms, community-scale fires, structural fires, storm surges, floods and tsunamis are included in the repository.

 Investigating engineer had to wait five years to sound alarm about flawed truss-joist product.
Photo: Courtesy Nelson Architectural Enegineers Inc.
Investigating engineer had to wait five years to sound alarm about flawed truss-joist product.
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“The effort will support development of standards and technologies for effective collection of data on disasters and failures,” in addition to providing public access to data, said Eric Letvin, director of NIST's disaster and failure studies program, at the 2011 Structures Congress, April 14-16 in Las Vegas.

The scope, scale and speed of work on the database depends on federal funding, added Letvin. Currently, the NIST program is funded at $650,000 for fiscal 2011, with a onetime supplemental funding of $400,000 for the repository. The fiscal 2012 budget request is for $2.45 million.

The pilot website is based on data collected during Chile's 2010 quake. Initially, the database will focus on recent and future events, especially those NIST studies. Later, NIST hopes to add data from significant events from recent decades.

With support from the American Society of Civil Engineers' technical committee on the dissemination of failure information, Pennsylvania State University is creating a Wikispaces database for engineering failures, said Michael Drerup, senior managing engineer in the Bowie, Md., office of Exponent and executive committee secretary of the ASCE technical council on forensic engineering.

Structural engineers at the conference, organized by ASCE's Structural Engineering Institute, welcomed news of the failure-database programs but said the programs won't solve a conundrum: how to blow the whistle on waiting-to-happen failures when discovered during work that, by contract, requires silence.

“My duty to public safety trumps… secrecy,” said Leonard J. Morse-Fortier, a staff consultant with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Waltham, Mass.

To get around contractual gag orders, Morse-Fortier suggested all structural engineers include a contract clause that allows them to speak out when a defect is discovered that could affect public safety. “There is strength in numbers,” he says.

Another engineer suggested ASCE develop an anonymous reporting system for problems that could have widespread consequences.

Engineers also are seeking better ways to report lessons learned from failure investigations when client agreements and legal settlements may require confidentiality and extended legal processes may prevent timely release of information.

For a collapse involving a defective manufactured wood-truss system, it took three years from the failure for his firm, the investigating engineer, to get permission to spread the word, said Erik L. Nelson, president of Nelson Architectural Engineers Inc., Dallas. For another collapse that involved a manufactured cold-formed steel-joist roof framing system, it took five years from the 2004 failure for Nelson to get permission to release a case study on design errors and fabrication defects. “That bothers me,” said Nelson.

The civil engineering section of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently crafted a statement regarding an engineer's responsibility to protect the public. The statement recommends an engineer document its opinion that technical data, if potentially helpful in the prevention of similar failures and damages, should be released to the engineering public for analysis. The engineer also should make explicit its opposition to sealing the data, often a stipulation of an out-of-court settlement, and inform lawyers and the judge as to why the data's release is in the public interest.

The group also wants NAE to study whether to recommend legislation to require the release of data. The NAE's committee on science, technology and law currently is discussing the statement.

“If we can learn from one another's mistakes, we can all learn faster,” said Morse-Fortier.


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