Fire safety problems

Fire safety and training is an aspect of the construction industry that is feeling the effects of a lack of time and available resources.

NEWS, Human Resource

Over the last 12 months, there have been a number of fire incidents in Dubai, as the pace of construction takes its toll. A poorly trained workforce and the sheer volume of projects has meant that the problem of fire safety training remains contentious.

But as with so many aspects of the sector, attracting the correct people to address this shortfall in knowledge and transfer it to the labourers remains difficult, as resources are stretched and time is limited.

Dean McGrail, associate director, WSP fire engineering division concedes that the problem is universal in the emirate: "Due to the great demand for skill in Dubai, quality is an issue in almost every professional sector, not just construction. There is a lack of engineers, contractors and consultants suitably qualified to advise on fire and life safety, both during the building design phase (pre-contract) and during the buildings
construction (post contract).

McGrail adds that the disparity lies with education: "In my opinion, the construction industry, Dubai Municipality (DM) and the residents of Dubai now take fire very seriously, especially during the construction phase of the building, however, more work needs to be done to educate people in the industry on fire safety."

This may be alluding to the difficulties of highlighting the dangers inherent in such an industry to an ever-expanding workforce with little previous education, and who originate from different countries making communication more difficult and time consuming.

However, over the last 12 months, McGrail is confident that a growing awareness has been demonstrated for the need for fire safety during the construction phase of the building, particularly educating the construction workers on safe work ethics and practices. Furthermore, DM has grown in size and is proactively seeking knowledge from the sector to improve its performance.

This has stemmed, he adds, from realisation brought about by incidents over the last year in Dubai where fatalities occured, such as the Fortune Tower in Jumeirah Lake Towers, which happened in January 2007. "Unfortunately, as some serious fires have occurred in Dubai during the past 12 months the industry has finally woken up to its effects, both on the people who work in and around the buildings and the public's perception of a property." Following the fire, in which two workers were killed and 25 were injured, a number of changes were implemented.

Speaking to Construction Week a few months back, Fawaz A Hadi, project manager, Al Liwa Contracting, who is building the Lakeside Residence at JLT explains a number of changes have taken place over the previous months in the wake of the fire. "No regulations were required on the voltage of electricity on site," he says. "But only two to three months ago, a new regulation was issued saying that all electrical equipment must be 110V instead of 220V."

While this wasn't a novel concept, to switch once the site had been mobilised and construction underway was inconvenient. Hadi adds that, besides increased inspections, there has been a marked increase in the number of fire safety personnel, and a greater emphasis on the number and specification of fire extinguishers from JAFZA, and greater emphasis on the fire evacuation procedures and training for those responsible for the labourers.

Bryan Wilson, executive director, JLT, explains, however, that it wasn't so much the lack of regulations, moreso the poor enforcement that has changed since: "In May, after the incident, Environment Health and Safety (EHS) started to enforce a policy that was probably in place but wasn't enforced in Dubai. The policy was that you had to provide fire protection in a tower as it was constructed. Before that they would just start a building and until it was turned on, with fire systems in place, it was at risk. Now as the building goes up, there has to be wet risers, which have to be active as it goes up, so protection is in place. If contractors are not implementing it, inspectors issue stop-work orders and fines of up to US $13,600 (AED 50,000). Eight have been issues so far."

McGrail agrees: "DM obviously has a role to play in implementing new legislation, however the onus should be on the consultants, engineers and contractors to ensure that buildings are designed and constructed safely. The amount of construction being undertaken in Dubai (and the GCC) at present would make it near on impossible for DM to enforce stricter control on every construction site."

To conclude, McGrail is hopeful the next 12-18 months will witness some positive changes in the region: "With respect to the design of buildings, we hope to see a greater awareness by Dubai Civil Defence in regards to fire engineered solutions and a more open attitude towards good verified solutions which are not based purely on prescriptive requirements.

"With respect to fire safety during construction, a 'fire safety/safety in construction' charter signed by the main contractors in Dubai may be a good step towards a visible commitment of improving the situation - potentially rewarding those who are committed to safety."

Growing awareness over fire safety has also ensured interest in fire resistance products has grown over the last year, according to Promat UK, which specialises in passive fire protection products.

According to Santosh Naya, technical services advisor, Middle East, Promat, there has been a noticeable increase in interest for such services: "We have noticed over the last 12 months, people are taking more interest in the various technologies we offer."

However, the issue is clouded as Naya explains that there are currently no clear specifications for Dubai or the Middle East region, instead all materials, which conform to British or North American standards are allowed to be used, regardless of the varying performance or relevance to the region. "There are no official fire regulations for materials," he said.

But, according to Chris Miles, business and technical development manager, Bodycote Warringtonfire, Dubai Civil Defence Authority is now working with the company to tighten up and establish a testing facility to service the region. "We are working with DCD to provide them with advice on fire safety," said Miles.

The centre, to be completed in early 2008, will deliver internationally accredited laboratory testing services. It will be managed and operated by Bodycote Warringtonfire Middle East and will offer fire testing of products, building materials and assemblies to the latest international and European standards.

The company is currently involved with projects such as Dubai Mall, the Palm Jumeirah and at the expanding Abu Dhabi airport. Naya added the company is also looking to work with Dubai Metro in the coming months. Its passive fire protection products include Supalux, a non-combustible, moisture resistant building board that offers 240 minutes of fire protection. Promatect-H is a non-combustible calcium silicate board reinforced with selected fibres and fillers. It is formulated with inorganic fibres and does not contain formaldehyde.

And fire safety will remain at the forefront of the sector's mind in January 2008, with Intersec. Running from 13-15 January, the conference incorporates the Fire and Rescue Middle East, which is strongly supported by Dubai Civil Defence, and attracts 120 exhibitors from the fields of fire fighting and fire prevention. Intersec also incorporates safety and health, commercial security, and homeland security and policing.

At this year's fair, Germany's Audax-Keck will be showcasing its fire protection coatings line-up under the brand name Renitherm. Produced in Germany, the intumescent coatings for structural steel maintain the resistance time of the load bearing structure of a building as long as possible. This therefore allows people to escape dangerous areas and minimises subsequent damage to the building. Furthermore, when applied to wood and electrical cables, Renitherm delays the time at which materials start to burn. Under extremely high temperatures, the steel coating expands by an endothermic reaction to form a foam barrier of 30-50 times its original thickness.

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