Can fire safety improve in UAE's older buildings?

Improving fire safety standards in the UAE’s older buildings will require rigorous planning and implementation frameworks

Hot topic: the UAE’s latest residential fire has raised questions about how the country’s older buildings can be strenghtened.
Hot topic: the UAE’s latest residential fire has raised questions about how the country’s older buildings can be strenghtened.

Dubai was the unhappy host of two sizeable blazes in November, causing concerns over the construction standards employed in the Emirate to be voiced once again.

The first incident to befall the city occurred at a residential complex in Deira. The fire led to the suspension of Dubai Metro services between the Green Line’s Union and Abu Hail stations on 23 November, 2015.

The blaze started at around 5.30pm in a building at Salah Al Din near Muraqqabat Police Station. Three blocks of Al Shamsi Building were destroyed by the fire, which was brought under control at around 10.20pm.

Firefighters worked diligently to prevent the blaze from spreading to the nearby Emarat petrol station and five-star hotels.

Explosions, triggered by gas cylinders, were also heard during the evacuations, and the roof of one of the structure’s blocks caved in. Four buildings behind the Al Shamsi complex were evacuated as a precautionary measure.

Such evacuation measures form part of a broader – if informal – strategy to enhance fire and life safety (FLS) awareness in the UAE.

As Garald Todd, head of fire and life safety and specialist services at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Middle East (WSP | PB ME), explains, the efficient deployment of injury-prevention measures during a fire requires joined-up thinking.

“There is always room for improvement, education, and awareness to increase life safety in the market,” Todd tells Construction Week.

“While Dubai Civil Defence has done an absolutely fantastic job – given the massive growth, size, complexity, and sheer number of buildings going up such a short period of time – it simply cannot do this alone.

“The notable areas for improvement needed in the region relate to materials, methodologies for installation, commissioning, and maintenance. The [fire] codes are sound, and equal to or greater than what would be considered international best practice; the issue comes down to the implementation of these codes,” Todd adds.

Prior to the fire at the Deira residential complex, an eyewitness told Gulf News that a barbecue was been hosted on the first floor of one of the Al Shamsi buildings. This has been put forward as a cause of the fire, but an official explanation for the accident is yet to be announced by local authorities.

Various reports confirm that fire alarms were triggered when the blaze took hold. However, some residents claim that there were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers installed in the buildings, and that dedicated fire exits were also lacking. At least two residents of Al Shamsi buildings have confirmed these claims, according to Gulf News.

The Al Shamsi buildings are at least 30 years old. The fact that it is one of Dubai’s older complexes could account for the reported dearth of fire-safety features.

Numerous buildings in Bur Dubai and Deira continue to depend on stairwells as alternative routes when elevators are shut down in the event of a fire.

Peter Van Gorp, department manager consultancy, at Tebodin Middle East, explains how older builds in the UAE can be enhanced in terms of fire and life safety.

“It is very important to make sure that standards are implemented in new buildings as intended,” Van Gorp tells Construction Week.

“A good strategy to increase compliance in old buildings is to carry out safety inspections, and I believe Dubai Civil Defence is working on such a programme through the engagement and involvement of specialists.

“Steps should be taken to make the process easier and more transparent for those who want to improve the fire safety of their existing premises [through] retrofit works,” Van Gorp adds.

However, this is only represents one piece of the jigsaw. The real challenge is to enhance the fire and life safety standards across the built environment as a whole. This greatly depends on ensuring the quality and functionality of fire safety installations, such as sprinklers and fire extinguishers.

“The pace at which things need to move here means that diligence in the installation and commissioning of both passive and active fire-safety features needs to be significant,” WSP | PB ME’s Todd says.

“There are no statutory requirements for third-party oversight of this aspect; instead, the regulators require the installers to be certified accordingly. Currently, most developers leave this to the contractors on site, who have to ensure projects meet onsite safety requirements, project costs, and very tight programmes.”

Perhaps the most significant factor in ensuring fire safety is the selection of construction materials. Not long before one of Dubai’s worst fire-related incidents, the Tamweel Tower fire in November 2012, Dubai Municipality issued a circular warning to contractors and building material suppliers over the non-use of fire-resistant building materials.

Circular No 186 was issued following the massive fire at the Al Tayer Tower in Sharjah, which residents and experts attributed to the building’s plastic facade tiles. Marwan Abdallah, head of the buildings inspection section at Dubai Municipality, said at the time that most fire safety violations in Dubai were caused by mistimed approval submissions.

“Dubai Civil Defence last published a comprehensive fire code in 2011, titled the UAE Fire & Life Safety Code of Practice,” Todd says.

“This is undergoing a comprehensive update for next year. However, the National Fire Protection Association suite of codes still stand as the core and basis for this code, and should be considered the bedrock for buildings in the UAE,” he adds.

Inconsistency within material compliance, meanwhile, continues, not only in Dubai but across the wider UAE. “We’ve seen instances of material that comes with a certification saying it performs or complies, but when tested, shares none of the characteristics that the material is supposed to have,” says Todd.

Tebodin’s Van Gorp adds that it is easier to ensure material compliance on existing and ongoing projects than on completed ones.

However, he warns that carrying out retrofit activities and safety studies on existing buildings is not enough – it is vital to ensure the results of these efforts are monitored.

“One sector that is very serious about FLS is hospitality, because hotel operators understand that any problems in their local operations will impact them globally,” notes Van Gorp.

Indeed, during the latest blaze in Dubai, Mövenpick Hotel Deira, situated in the locality, confirmed that it had evacuated its guests as a precautionary measure.

Both Todd and Van Gorp agree that fire prevention in Dubai depends on awareness within the end-user segment.

“At the end of the day, all of the above comes down to one simple fact – fire and life safety is everyone’s responsibility,” summarises WSP | PB ME’s Todd.

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