A burning issue
Experts say fire testing and safety regimes in the GCC are improving
Any fire expert will tell you that you will never be able to fully prevent fires from happening but there are certainly measures that can and should be taken to mitigate and contain them. The destruction of part of the Tamweel Tower in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT) in November 2012 was arguably the most high-profile incident, certainly in Dubai, of a building fire in recent times.
Notwithstanding the distress it caused to those who were displaced, it highlighted how far the entire GCC has still to go to make its buildings safe.
In many ways, the UAE has been leading the way on fire safety. The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, for instance, has barred the future application of highly flammable exterior cladding panels on medium and high-rise towers, which in many cases were blamed for accelerating the spread of fires.
Jean-Philippe Kayl, a fire testing manager at Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants, says that fire safety in the GCC is improving and regulations becoming more stringent. “This is generally true for all GCC countries where building safety is a serious concern for existing as well as new buildings,” he notes.
Brian Walters, a fire engineer with WSP, says civil defences in the UAE have been quick to act upon incidents and consult the industry to adjust their codes accordingly.
“You have to remember that the UAE code only came into existence three years ago and was formed from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). It’s forever evolving and improving. Architects and consultants will go back to the civil defences and say they don’t understand this or this doesn’t work. As time passes these rules will become iron-clad.”
Martin Kealy, managing director and principal fire consultant at Tenable, highlights the introduction of a Fire Fighting Lobby (FFL) in buildings as a positive amendment to the UAE code. An FFL is now required for all high-rise buildings that are 23m and above.
Barry Bell, managing director (Middle East and Asia) and senior engineering consultant at Wagner Fire Safety Management Consultants, says fire safety issues in the GCC are similar to those faced elsewhere in the world and that regulatory enforcement, maintenance regimes, education and code development are all intertwined in driving up standards.
“These issues are always going to be there, and as far as anyone can tell, they are being dealt with, and in the main, to a high standard,” he adds. “As a region, fire safety will continue to improve as long as there is dialogue and information exchange between authorities, architects and engineers, facility management and the public.”
Kealy says there is an argument for the GCC countries to follow a uniform fire code.
“Throughout the GCC there are at least five different fire codes that are being used. It would be nice, for example, to have everything the same so if a developer builds a hotel in one area it’s the same as another.”
Kayl says there has been a growing trend among GCC countries of ensuring that fire-related products are certified. Major changes, he says, have seen an adjustment of the requirements where codes now emphasise the full spectrum of product conformity when it comes to allowing fire-related products and assemblies to be marketed within certain jurisdictions.
“While some time back, fire testing was sufficient on its own to market fire-related products; it is now clear that product certification is a must,” he says.
Jason Hird, a senior technical development manager at Saint-Gobain Gyproc, says third party product certification schemes are now growing in popularity and have several benefits over basic fire test reports.
“Each time a fire occurs, the cause is highlighted and regulations tightened, as with foam-filled external cladding systems. This piecemeal approach, however, has left specifiers and developers looking for a reliable way of comparing fire performance of all building components, as part of a more holistic approach to fire safety,” he says.
He argues that this starts at the drawing board with features such as compart-mentation in order to slow fire spread, as well as separation of areas of high and low risk fire. Unless building products are themselves fire resistant, they will add to the fire load of the building.
“It is important to use only quality components, such as wall and ceiling linings, that have been tested to provide the level of fire integrity and insulation needed for each area of the building. This is particularly so in high-rise towers where fire performance is essential to protect exit routes, allow access for fire fighters and prevent premature structural collapse.”
Fire test reports, he says, demonstrate only that the specified product or system, at the time of testing, provided the level of fire performance laid out in the particular test standard. Third party certification systems, however, take a broader view of the manufacturer’s business and the processes and procedures in place to ensure consistent product quality and performance.
“Fire testing, whilst part of this process, is carried out under the auspices of certification bodies – themselves approved by the General Directorate of the Civil Defence and by recognised accreditation bodies.
“Certification can accommodate new and improved products much more quickly through assessments based on the product performance characteristics and procedures of the manufacturer involved and simplifies comparison of products, enabling costs to be controlled without impacting fire safety.”
Kealy believes that all products should be approved and certified by safety testing and certification organisations.
“There have been many fake fire protection products on the market in the past including sprinklers and fire dampers. Careful inspection and certification can reduce this risk,” he says.
Walters argues that in order for building designs to be robust fire consultants must be brought in at the beginning of the design stage. “We can ensure that a building’s design complies with the code,” he says.
Kealy agrees. “Being brought on to a project towards the end of a design leads to increased design risk and uncertainty.”
Moving forward, Bell says standards in building maintenance and inspections across the GCC can still improve. It is therefore crucial to ensure enforcement is carried out and facilities managers are fully educated and trained on the fire strategy of a building.
“For continuous, satisfactory fire safety in a building, and throughout the lifecycle of a building, the facility management is challenged,” he says. “Facility management staff must maintain a high level of competence in all aspects of fire and life safety in respect to managing and maintaining a building. Continuous education is the only way to ensure that this happens.”
Walters says the GCC could learn lessons from countries like the UK where the onus is on the building owner to carry out a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) in addition to the annual fire inspections that take place.
“It’s more looking at not only the risks but people who are affected by them. The FRA looks at the building holistically whereas a fire inspection will say you have these problems. The FRA will tell you where the problems are, how bad they are and how you go about fixing them.
“If that took off over here, thinking from a purely humanitarian and community safety point of view and putting commercial interests to one side, it would be a really encouraging step.”