Fire safety 2007 and beyond

Olof Axelsson, fire engineer and Dean McGrail, director, WSP Fire Engineering express their concerns over fire safety in Dubai.

COMMENT, Facilities Management

The residents of Dubai witnessed a number of fires in 2007. There were industrial fires in Sharjah, Al Quoz and Jebel Ali and a residential fire in the Burj Dubai, all of which were widely covered by the local media.

The most severe and widely reported (including internationally) incident, resulting in the death of two workers and injuries to several others, was the Fortune Tower fire.

Whilst these fires have resulted in significant loss to property and in some cases lives, they have raised the awareness of the need for fire safety in buildings.

The construction industry, Dubai municipality and the residents of Dubai are now taking the issue far more seriously, especially during the construction phase of a building.

But more needs to be done to educate people in the industry. Designers and contractors must take greater responsibility in ensuring that buildings are safe both during the construction phase and when the building is operational and occupied.

As a result of last year's fires, Dubai Civil Defence is now reviewing its fire regulations for development under construction. This legislation will put a greater degree of responsibility on the construction industry to ensure that buildings are as safe as reasonably practical during construction.

As it will be almost impossible for the municipality to inspect all buildings under construction for adherence to these new regulations, the onus will be on the designers and contractors to ensure that the building is safe.

The construction team will need to conduct inspections on a regular basis to ensure the building is safe for occupation, both during construction and prior to the building being opened to the public.

So what can we expect in 2008? We hope that the current momentum in the industry to ensure the safety of construction workers is maintained.

Although a lot has been done in the past year, predominantly due to the fact that fire safety has been in the public eye, the construction industry needs to take an even greater responsibility in educating workers on why they need to follow safety protocols and not just enforce them.

Research shows that the reason for people not obeying instructions is often due to a lack of information or understanding on why the instructions are in place.

Hopefully, more will be done by the industry during the pre and post construction phases, to ensure that the buildings are designed and maintained correctly.

Designing a building to be safe in the event of a fire requires specialised training. Design teams should therefore employ
suitably qualified fire and life safety engineers in the same way that they employ qualified HVAC engineers to design air conditioning systems.

The design should not be included in the MEP or architects scope of works. It is an independent discipline. A qualified fire and life safety engineer will take an holistic view of the safety requirements of a building and will not be constrained by following rules and regulations if he/she knows that this could result in an unsafe building. After all, life safety codes are by their very nature, written to be applied to generic buildings and a large percentage of buildings in the UAE are far from generic.

This imposes a greater degree of responsibility on the fire and life safety engineer to understand fires and how they develop and behave in buildings. Today, lack of engineers, contractors and consultants who are qualified to advise on these issues, both during the building's design phase (pre contract) and during the building's construction (post contract) is a big problem within the industry.

The last thing anyone wants is for a large fire to occur in a completed building before this issue is brought into the public eye.

Dubai Municipality 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 as safely as possible.

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