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The UAE needs a joined-up approach to fire safety

The UAE’s upcoming fire and life safety code seeks to drive construction teams away from conventional practices to formulate cohesive and integrated strategies

COMMENT, Business, Dubai, Dubai civil defence, Fire, Fire codes, Fire safety, Uae, United Arab Emirates

What do you think are the GCC fire safety sector’s most common errors and weaknesses? Chances are, most industry professionals will rate unclear local codes very highly on their lists.

The burgeoning demand for unified and explicit fire rating standards was evident at the Intersec 2016 exhibition, which took place in Dubai, UAE last week.

In addition to experts from the sectors of security, safety, and fire protection, numerous construction professionals were present at the event and its collocated conferences. The show, however, was stolen by Dubai Civil Defence officials, who revealed key details about the UAE’s updated fire code, due to come into effect in March 2016.

Lt Col Jamal Ahmad Ibrahim, director of Dubai Civil Defence’s preventive safety department, told Construction Week that the new standards will amplify the role of consultants and building owners in ensuring fire safety. The regulations will require that consultants have involvement in areas previously outside of their remit, such as materials selection and construction inspection.

The upcoming code poses an important question for the UAE’s construction community: are consultants and owners willing and able to assume new responsibilities?

Discussion at Intersec pivoted on this question, not only in anticipation of the expected fire codes, but also in an attempt to redefine project team accountability for fire incidents. The construction industry and fire authorities finding common ground in this regard will result in the resolution of what has historically troubled post-fire claims and operations in the Emirates.

Two years after the 2012 blaze at Dubai’s Tamweel Tower, for instance, residents had reportedly received little information about which agency or company would process their claims. In 2014, one resident told Gulf News that Tamweel was unwilling to “get involved in the claim”.

If implemented as intended, the UAE’s 2016 fire code should serve to limit the occurrence of such impasses. Nevertheless, attendees at last week’s Intersec agreed that multiple stakeholders will have to take responsibility for life safety; not just projects’ fire engineers.

Rob Davies, technical director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Middle East, remarked on the importance of effective coordination during the formulation of fire safety designs. “If a building isn’t constructed like it was designed to be, then [it won’t] end up with the [intended] fire strategy,” he pointed out during his presentation at the show.

“We tell people what we’ve put into their fire strategy, and then that fire strategy [reacts] to design changes – it meets the architect’s intent, it helps the mechanical engineer lay out his systems, and so on.”

Davies’ remarks are even more pertinent when placed within the context of common fire causes in the GCC. Speaking to Construction Week, Easa F Al Gurg, general manager at Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group’s commercial and industrial division, said that electrical failures are a leading cause of fires in the region. Reducing fire risk, he suggested, will involve more than mere tough talk with electrical and onsite engineers.

Instead, construction teams must work together to ‘fire proof’ buildings, and clear descriptions of facilities management (FM) and operational responsibility should be written into contracts to ensure accountability. Furthermore, fire detection and suppression devices must be designed, procured, and installed with appropriate design principles.

As John Noone, associate director for fire engineering in the Middle East at Arup, explained at the show, integrated testing and commissioning will greatly aid operators and FM firms following project completion.

Meanwhile at Intersec, Dubai Civil Defence discussed the evacuation of The Address Downtown Dubai, which caught fire on New Year’s Eve, 2015. The public body highlighted the contribution of fire compartmentation and passive suppression systems, which officials said helped to prevent the blaze from spreading to the hotel’s stairwells.

The UAE’s upcoming fire code will serve to formalise examples of best practice, which are no doubt familiar to the majority of the country’s design, engineering, and construction professionals. It will then be down to the industry as a whole to collaborate in a bid to ensure fire safety.

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