EDWARDSVILLE – Responding to safety concerns raised by the Dec. 10 tornado that killed six people when part of an Amazon warehouse collapsed, state Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) and others are seeking ways to avoid a repeat of the tragedy.

On Monday, Stuart and Chairman and Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago), met with various experts during a virtual hearing to discuss warehouse safety standards.

“The death of six workers in the Amazon warehouse collapse calls into question the safety standards of warehouses and the need for tornado shelters or safe rooms in such buildings,” Stuart said. “Many other buildings in our area are built with the same method as the Amazon warehouse and we should be proactive to prevent further tragedies.”

Stuart read a statement by Edwardsville Police Chief Whiteford, who noted that the collapse of the warehouse brought to light concerns about safety and warehouse construction.

“As fire service representatives, we hold the responsibility to enforce minimum standards and advocate for best practices in terms of fire and life safety,” Whiteford said.

“Best practices come from general knowledge, specific training and practical experience, along with combined decades of fire and emergency services. The reality is that most fire codes are based upon tragedies or near-misses. There is a constant balance that needs to be struck between risk versus cost.”

Whiteford noted that the International Code Council (ICC) produces a set of internationally recognized minimum-code standards for construction and that Illinois and most other states follow those standards.

“This tornado highlights the need to review and likely change building requirements for large warehouses,” Whiteford said. “Short of making those changes, the best thing that fire service can do is to improve preparedness.

“Yet equipment is aging, trained personnel are becoming difficult to find and financial resources are spread thin. Response equipment relied on by the state of Illinois, like the mutual box alarm service and the terrorism task force portable shelters, which have been employed across the state for the COVID response, are wearing out. Hazardous materials response vehicles are two decades old and becoming unreliable and costly to maintain.”

Whiteford added that Madison County has more than 30 million square feet of warehouses that are important to the local economy, as well as to national commerce. But providing emergency services to those buildings and other facilities is becoming more of a challenge.

“Six fire departments in western Madison County have self-contained breathing apparatus set to expire next year,” Whiteford said. “Radio communication systems in Madison County are not standardized. In some cases, police and fire in the same town cannot communicate with each other over the radio. This problem expands to communication between counties and becomes even more complicated as it crosses state lines.”

Whiteford also noted that staffing challenges exist within both the career and volunteer side of fire service, and training is another concern. As many firefighters retire and leave the fire service, new hires need expensive technical training.

“Emergency services cannot be seen as operating in the same way that businesses do,” Whiteford said. “Businesses operate on an efficiency model, to do the most you can with the least possible cost. If a business fails, there is an economic cost to the community; if emergency services fail, there are costs in terms of lives, injuries and social and community impacts, as well as the economic impacts.

“Emergency services cannot fail. They are simply too important to the welfare of the community. Emergency services must operate on a resiliency model, and they need built-in redundancy in order to ensure that the response capabilities are there when they are needed.”

Speakers at the hearing included Jim Bell, Director of Operations for the National Storm Shelter Association.

“We suggest that building owners get an architect or engineer who is knowledgeable with tornado codes to do surveys of buildings to see where you would put (storm shelters) within the building, as well as well as the occupancy (standards) for the shelter, as well as the ability of the shelter to hold up,” Bell said.

“Impact debris is what damages a lot of shelters, but with the warehouse in Edwardsville, it looked a lot more like wind damage was working on the roof system and the walls caved in. We’ve learned over the years how tornadoes work, and we try to apply that knowledge and technology to the improvements that we make.”

Marc Levitan, meanwhile, is a research wind engineer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Levitan noted that most tornado fatalities occur inside buildings, and that the tornado that hit the Amazon warehouse was an EF3 tornado, with 150-mile-per-hour winds.

“The design speeds that we use in the new (building code) standards are 130 miles per hour and that ranges from approximately EF0 to EF2 tornado intensity, and 97 percent of tornadoes are in the EF0 to EF2 range,” Levitan said.

“The design tornado criteria for a particular building depends on its risk category, its geographic location and the building plan, size and shape. The latter is important because the larger the size of the facility, the larger its footprint will be when a tornado strikes. The tornado criteria are not designed to protect against the most intense tornados; they’re designed to protect against the most common tornadoes.”

Other speakers were Randy Harris, director of the Midwest Region for Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust (LECET); Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFLCIO; Gavin Stoddard from the International Warehouse Logistics Association and Alex Laird from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

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February 14, 2022 at 05:58PM