Design Lessons For The Future

New Zealand reader Del Robinson points out this interesting article from USA Today, which analyzes who lived and who died in the World Trade Center, and why.

The interactive sequence is particularly well done. It almost seems (if we believe the article) that for the majority of the workers (not the rescuers mind) their fate was sealed as soon as the planes hit, and whether or not the towers fell would not have made much difference.

A couple of what ifs jumped out:

1. Some people found their way down stairway A in the South Tower. If they had been able to ring cell phones or emergency phones in stairwell to tell others that it was ok, then others might have attempted to go down that stairwell too. As it was only four did.

2. They suggest quite a few people were stuck in elevators and there was too much confusion to rescue them. Is there anything the average person can do to get themselves “unstuck” from inside elevators (and if not why not) I understand that you don’t generally want people getting out of elevators because they will probably Darwin themselves, but it harks back to the “protect people from themselves / professional rescue only” which is all very well, but unhelpful when the professionals don’t appear 🙁

Yes, that’s the general problem we have with the nanny-government approach–when it fails, it often fails spectacularly (as in the hijacked aircraft).

I guess there is obviously a big if about how long the emergency services should have stayed in the buildings, but I don’t know enough to comment, and its very tragic whatever the answer. (i.e., tragic if no one realised and they were sent into a dangerous situation beyond their control, or tragic if they realised it was a possibility and did it anyway)

Well, as in the case of the hijacked aircraft (and as is the case with most problems in general) the key is information and communication. Even if nothing changes in future building design, the experience will hopefully guide our actions in any similar future occurrences. As digital wireless becomes more ubiquitous, the communications problem will become more tractable in the future. Consider: what happened on September 11 could have been done any time since the advent of jet airliners (over forty years ago), but what happened on Flight 93 would not have been possible twenty years ago–it required the advent of cell phones that could be used in the air (though the passengers violated the rules by doing so…)

Which is another interesting question that I haven’t seen discussed. I’ve always been suspicious that the no-cell-phones rule was less about avionics interference than it was about maintaining revenue for the airlines from the Skyphones. While it’s theoretically possible that cell-phone emissions could cause problems, I’m not aware of any actual studies to indicate that it’s the case. I suspect that it’s simply a “better safe than sorry” rule that just happens to financially benefit the airlines. It might be time to take a look at that situation (i.e., actually do some research to determine whether or not it is a real problem), because, as we saw on Flight 93, communications can be vital in staving off a (bigger) disaster.

[8:15 AM Update]

As usual, my readers are smarter (or at least better informed) than me. I guess I could have done a search myself, but an anonymous reader points out that there is some data to indicate that EMI from cell phones (and game boys) can be a problem in aircraft, according to Boeing, and that he or she has personally experienced disruptions to automobile electronics from a two-way radio.

So apparently it is a real issue. However, I suspect that it’s not an insurmountable one–neither the aircraft or the devices were designed to interact with each other–it probably wasn’t part of the spec for either. Of course, even if we did have FCC specs allowing safe usage, it would still be hard to guarantee that everyone’s device would meet them. The effort should probably go toward better EMI shielding on the aircraft avionics side (particularly in the next generation of aircraft), because it’s much easier to control, and the problem’s just going to get worse with wireless internet devices (like Bluetooth).