New York, May 2 -- The buildings of the World Trade Center were exempt from local codes. If this had not been so, more lives may have been saved when the buildings fell down. Seven years after the tragedy, another prominent and iconic building is exempt from the same safety codes : the United Nations Headquarters.
Last year, New York City officials were concerned enough that Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent a letter to the U.N., followed by an inspection by the New York Fire Department. It took nine months for the U.N. to allow this inspection. Once inside, the city discovered more than 866 fire code violations.
Because of concerns about possible terrorist attacks, neither the city nor the U.N. would disclose specifics about the violations. Required improvements included certifying a number of U.N. security personnel as fire directors, filing updated plans to address the remaining fire-code violations, and establishing a link with the city in case of fire.
In Mayor Bloomberg's letter to the U.N., he said that if the United Nations did not make improvements by early 2008, the city would ban all public school visits to the United Nations.
The United Nations building is a distinctive complex in New York City that has served as the headquarters of the U.N. since its completion in 1950. More than 4,500 employees work in the building. Located on an 18-acre site on the east side of Manhattan, it is an international zone belonging to all member states. Because the U.N. compound is technically international territory, it was exempt from state and federal regulations on worker and environmental safety, even with respect to smoking, until last year's inspection by the NYFD.
Since then, the U.N. has announced that they would cooperate with the city to adhere to the new standards.
"We don't have to follow the U.S law here," said Werner Schmidt, public information officer at the United Nations. "It was on a voluntary basis that we let the NYFD inspect our buildings, and since then we have fixed things."
But even with the inspections and the progress made by the U.N., the building is still far from being safe, employees said, as it lacks basic fire detectors, sprinklers on many floors, and safety training. According to employees, the conditions remain bad enough to make both employees and visitors feel insecure about where they are, especially having witnessed the 9/11 tragedy.
"I saw a couple of guys walking around to install some sprinklers and stuff after the inspection last year," said one uniformed security guard, "but the building is really old, inside particularly. Even though they fixed some of the things, the changes weren't very comprehensive."
"After 9/11, I'm not sure whether there have been any physical changes, but definitely there has been a mental one, which is, I feel, concern about working in that building in particular,” said Paul Zachary, who works in the 36th floor office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “It's such an iconic building, like the WTC, but I'm not sure if it's safe enough."
He added that people are able to smoke in the building "without any problem." His tone of voice implied this is not a good thing to do - cigarettes that end up trash cans, for instance, can start fire.
According to Schmidt, the U.N. public information officer, there are three areas in which the UN is addressing the violations that were issued by the FDNY in 2007. They have installed hundreds of smoke detectors; they are training a number of safety and security officers as FDNY-certified fire directors. And finally, by July, they will complete compartmentalization of the ventilation between parts of the buildings, so that in the case of an incident, the affected area can be isolated from other areas and smoke does not get transported throughout the complex.
In addition, the U.N. recently set up a new renovation plan, the Capital Master Plan. According to a UN report, it will focus on aspects of security, environmental and safety issues. They plan to also achieve a silver rating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design(LEED), which is focused on energy efficiency moreso than on safety. But the U.N. has struggled for years to persuade the United States and the other 191 member nations to finance this multibillion-dollar renovation project. The Capital Master Plan has finally received funding but is not scheduled for completion until the end of 2014.
But the new renovation plan has yet to comfort many people in the building.
"It has been more than five years that they talked about the renovation plan, but I have no idea what would happen if we have a fire or something right now," said Tom, a worker for UNESCO who witheld his last name. "I'm not sure we have enough fire extinguishers on my floor, or if the stairs are wide enough to let all of the people get out quickly. It seems like it's so disturbing that we don't even think about it, and it is a real problem."
Many pointed out that in addition to fixing the building, the U.N. should have more safety training for the people working in the building. Employees stated that they are unaware of any organized plan or handbook for emergency evacuations, except for an email alert.
"I don't know how the fire alarm sounds. I'm not even sure we even actually have them," said Zachary, the man who works for the UNHCR on 36th floor. "I wouldn't say I noticed anything except the installation of fire sprinklers. Every thing is done piece by piece. But maybe they haven't gotten to my floor yet. I'd love to see that."
Sooyeon Kim was born in South Korea. While she attended Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul she volunteered as a math teacher in a poor community. She was also a reporter for a South East Asian migrant worker publication. As an exchange student at Western Washington University, she studied communication and the spicy taste of Indian curry. Kim interned at the Social Service Employees Union in New York City. She is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University, focusing on urban issues.