Has the region learned from the regular spare of fires, or are the same mistakes repeated?
One of the biggest dangers for a region full of construction is the possibility of a fire outbreak. Safety is of paramount importance, but what is being done and are regulations fit for purpose? Construction Week asks the experts ...
Boasting some of the most impressive and modern constructions in the world, the Middle East has been bringing in experts in fire safety to ensure these structures are as safe as possible.
But that doesn’t mean the experts are always listened to and there are still companies looking for shortcuts. With every summer that passes, the spate of stories regarding fires in residential buildings continues – particularly in older properties or those that have used cheaper (sometimes flammable) cladding materials.
Indeed, the point has been made in the wake of each major fire that incidents happen all too often, yet Barry R. Bell, managing director of Wagner Fire Safety Management Consultants, explains that lessons are learned.
“Every incident related to fire, no matter how big or small, leads to a better understanding of our buildings, facilities, and the communities that work and live in them,” he says.
“Wherever weaknesses in regulations are identified, they are immediately addressed and updated.
“Control over the quality of building design and the implementation of both active and passive fire protection is governed by a variety of authorities, including the electricity supply commission, the fire department and urban planning councils, as well as the municipalities.”
There is no doubt that products related to fire safety are strictly monitored by the relevant authorities for quality and performance, in line with global standards.
Bell adds that the GCC is unique in the sense that it is “able, and willing, to apply the world’s latest technologies into the iconic projects that abound in the region”.
There is a desire to see improvements and key stakeholders such as government authorities (civil defence, public works, municipalities, etc), consultants and developers have become more aware of the risks related with fires and are implementing various standards and codes for fire prevention, according to Tom Bell-Wright, CEO and chief
technical officer of Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants.
“These stakeholders are realising the need for stricter requirements and the importance of mandating third party approvals and inspections to supplement and support government authorities’ (Civil Defences) inspections.”
In a bid to help these efforts and boasting the only UKAS-accredited fire testing laboratory in the region, the company has added fire propagation testing for exterior walls, fire stop inspections, and product certification to its list of services, complementing its existing resistance-to-fire testing of doors and walls, and reaction to fire testing of construction materials.
One major advance in recent years is the use of building information modelling (BIM), according to Robert Davies, Middle East technical director of fire and life safety at WSP.
“Although there is more of an advance across other engineering design services, and it is not necessarily new in some parts of the world, it is becoming more widely used by fire protection designers in the UAE and other GCC countries,” he argues.
“This advance has led to better design coordination before the project is started on site and an improvement in the way maintenance of fire systems is conducted.”
However, Jason Hird, senior technical development manager, Saint-Gobain Gyproc, says while there is no doubt there have been some changes and advancements in active fire protection technology, “passive fire protection hasn’t changed that much over the past decade or so”.
“There have been small advancements in board technologies over the years, but it’s very difficult to announce anything major over the last 12 months,” he adds.
“Similarly with testing, there have been no real changes in testing methods for some time.”
But training certainly continues and during 2014, Gyproc trained hundreds of professionals in the region about fire protection, fire resistance and how to react to fire incidents.
Hird says the most important aspect of this education was “specifying the right systems for the right areas that provide the most appropriate levels of performance – i.e. not under- or over-specified, something that is fit for purpose.”
Of course, it’s not just buildings that need protecting, it’s also the first responders to any fire-related event.
One new product that has been well received across the region has been Dupont’s Thermo-Man, a test dummy boasting 122 heat sensors used to evaluate fire protective clothing.
Amr Al Moniem, general manager of DuPont Gulf, says that Thermo-Man has been its biggest innovation in the GCC in recent years.
“After being introduced in the UAE in 2012 and Saudi Arabia in 2013, it was launched in Kuwait last year,” he says.
“For 2015, we look forward to introducing DuPont Thermo-Man in other parts of the region.”
Although developments in the region may be modern, it doesn’t always equate to safety and “awareness on the subject of in-situ and post installation inspections needs to be increased,” according to Bell-Wright.
“Extremely well-designed buildings supplied with fully-compliant products can be rendered dangerously unsafe by wrong installation,” he continues.
“The awareness and implementation of such inspections is critical to the safety of the region.”
Al Moniem says that fire safety in the GCC’s oil and gas industry is paramount because of the large amounts of flammable gases and liquids handled and stored.
“Even though the region is well aware of the latest solutions in fire prevention and protection, there is a need for more awareness to minimise the risk of disaster,” he asserts.
And when it comes to the regulatory environment, while Al Moniem says in comparison to 2013, the regulatory environment has undergone significant changes for better in 2014. “For a region that is set to play a vital role in meeting future energy demands, safety standards for PPE in the GCC should be regularised in a proper framework to prepare against potential risks,” he adds.
Bell-Wright says predominantly throughout the region similar codes and standards are adopted, with variations being requested over and above base requirements, depending on specific projects.
“The region in progressively moving towards common codes and standards,” he continues.
“We believe that this should benefit the region’s various stakeholders (government authorities, building owners, consultants, contractors and the public).”
According to Bell, the regulatory environment is similar throughout the region, “at least by intention to achieve higher standards”.
“As for anywhere in the world, in any country for that matter, there will be different approaches, different applications, but the main goals and objectives will be the same,” he says.
“There is also an inevitable spirit of competition between the GCC countries, each wishing to better than its
“But look at some of the achievements that have been made; Abu Dhabi hosts the Formula 1 event, Dubai will host the World Expo, Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, not to mention the array of international sport events ? it’s all good, and getting better all the time.”
For Hird, fire prevention is a multi-faceted discipline, and there have been many areas of improvement across the region, “in particular around products and their performance against reaction to fire”.
“Many of us have witnessed these improvements here in the UAE, certainly in exterior cladding over the past year or so,” he continues.
“We have seen other countries around the GCC make certain changes to their legislation too, although there is still some way to go to meet other international standards.”
And Davies adds to this by stating the status of fire and life safety code development does vary from country to country within the GCC, “but the regulatory environment is progressive, with most GCC fire authorities developing their own fire and life safety codes via collaboration with other GCC countries or with international code authorities”.
Looking forward, Bell argues the next stage of change in fire prevention will be “driven by the new vitality in the construction industry”.
“As new developments are sanctioned, the demand for innovative products as well as innovative designers and construction expertise will emerge,” he continues.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the inevitable advances in building technology that will come, but it is important to be here and take part in what is coming.”
As a result of heightened awareness, Bell-Wright says building materials suppliers are keen to show they are doing the right thing.
“The supply chain of materials, products and services are starting to work towards achieving greater compliance”.
“The year 2015 will see increased efforts by businesses who will focus their resources to deliver products and services which achieve compliance through greater uptake on testing, inspection and certification,” he adds.
Cutting corners can be costly, not just from a safety but a financial aspect. Tom Bell-Wright highlights two cases where a lack of understanding of fire safety regulation cost developers time and money.
“The first is the case of a high-rise building in the region (more than 50 floors up) where the fire stops were not inspected during the construction phase of the project.
This led to the delay of more than six months for the project handover as the contractor was forced to undergo the painful and expensive process of completing these fire-stop inspections post-construction. This experience has led to strict implementation of such inspections by the developer for all of its ongoing and future projects.
“The second case is of a commercial complex in the region where the fire doors were installed without proper verification of certification documentation submitted by the supplier. With the inspections revealing installation of non-compliant fire doors, the project team had to spend extraordinary time and money to correct the situation.”