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Intersec 2016: A fire alarm for FM providers

The Address Hotel’s evacuation operations highlight the evolving role of facilities management in the UAE’s construction sector

ANALYSIS, SPECIAL REPORTS, Facilities Management, Sectors, Construction, Construction sector, Intersec, Intersec 2016, Uae, United Arab Emirates

A fortnight after a blaze gutted the Address Hotel in Downtown Dubai, officials claim a fire drill held at the facility in September 2015 played an instrumental role in ensuring successful evacuation operations.

Speaking to Construction Week on the sidelines of the Safety and Security Design in Buildings 2016 conference, co-located with Intersec 2016, Matt Bright, a risk analyst and fire investigator at Dubai Civil Defence’s operations department, said the hotel’s staff and local forces were aware of the facility’s logistics due to the drill.

Bright also revealed, during a speech he delivered earlier in the day, that up to 3,000 guests were present in the hotel when it caught fire on 31 December, 2015. Of these, 2,000 were visiting restaurants and other hospitality outlets at the hotel.

“A high number of people obviously impacts [evacuation operations], but that everyone got out without serious injury is testament to the fact that the evacuation plan worked,” he said.

“We’ve done evacuation drills in that building, and the last one was in September 2015. So the staff were prepared, and local forces were prepared. They know the building well.”

The hotel had also undergone evacuation drills in previous years, Bright noted, reiterating that the absence of any serious injuries during the evacuation was proof the Civil Defence’s plans were effective.

Bright’s statements underscore the role of facilities management operations in structural emergencies, such as high-rise fires. In the case of The Address, the civil defence team was fortunate, in a sense, to have firefighters already present at the scene due to the high-profile fireworks show planned for the evening.

Civil defence forces and commanders typically work between 2pm on New Year’s Eve to 2am the next morning to get in position before the crowds arrive for the fireworks show, Bright revealed.

“So these guys were already on duty [on the night of the fire], and our response time was two minutes.”

One of the more complicated situations at The Address involved the building’s sprinkler system, which Bright claimed stopped working approximately 15 minutes into operation.

“The sprinkler systems are designed to operate to suppress the fire so [firefighters] can arrive safely and put it out, but when you’ve got sprinklers running on multiple floors, think about the pressure put on the water supplies within the facility,” Bright told Construction Week.

“The sprinklers worked like they were supposed to, but the water was drained rather quickly because of how many were [in operation] that night.”

While passive systems, such as doors, helped curtail the extent of smoke spreading into the stairwell, firefighters were restricted by the lack of elevator access during evacuation.

“Almost all fire doors stayed intact,” Bright continued.

“In any fire, we look at compartmentation. Fire doors are a key aspect because they not only contain flames, but smoke too. In the Tamweel and Torch towers, for instance, the stairwells were pretty much free of smoke because of the fire doors.”

However, Bright admitted The Address’s post-evacuation operations would have moved at a quicker pace – and resulted in lower rates of firefighter fatigue – if the building’s fire elevators been designed to prevent sprinkler water ingress.

This seeming operational glitch indicates a lack of coordination within the remit of facility design and management. Rob Davies, technical director at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff Middle East, said fire safety is a salient factor which must be taken into consideration at the design phase, with adequate coordination between all construction parties.

“Ensuring that we co-ordinate all through the design stage is the responsibility of everyone, not just the fire safety engineer,” Davies remarked, adding the project’s architect, structural engineer, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) teams must also be involved to ensure coordinated design and implementation.

The strongest evidence that a project’s entire construction team, and not just fire engineers, are responsible for its fire and life safety rating is provided by the 2012 Villaggio Mall fire in Qatar.

The families of those who died during the Villaggio fire filed lawsuits in May 2015 with Qatar’s court of first instance and with the Los Angeles Superior Court in California, Doha News reported.

The fire had caused the deaths of 19 people by smoke asphyxiation, including children who were trapped in a day-care outlet at the time, four nursery staff and two firefighters who tried to rescue them. Defendants named under the US lawsuit included F+A Architects, a Pasadena-based company that designed Villaggio; Business Trading Company (BTC), a Qatar firm that developed and managed the mall operations; and White Young Qatar, described as the project manager and contributing architect and engineer.

The lawsuit stated the fire was “a result of numerous fatal mistakes on the part of the defendants”, adding the deaths were preventable, but the fault lay with the fire control and suppression systems designed by F+A and White Young, which “wholly failed” during the incident. Questions were also raised about smoke fans, which reportedly forced smoke back into the mall instead of venting it out, inaudible alarms, short fire hoses, and a faulty sprinkler system.

The lawsuit reportedly alleged that sprinklers and fans around the mall were poorly installed, leading to their faulty operation during the mall fire.

James Bychowski, senior vice president for Middle East operations at Aon Fire Protection, explained the significance of fire device placement.

“With false alarms, the key is improper design, and it comes down to where the device is placed, and whether it detects [fires] like it is meant to without producing nuisance alarms,” Bychowski said, speaking at the Safety and Security in Buildings 2016 conference.

“[Repetitive] nuisance alarms mean the operator will shut off the device or silence it, which you definitely don’t want.”

It is also likely that smoke might never reach the detectors and alarms installed on high ceilings, or diffuser fans, installed too close to the detector, blow dust into the latter and cause repeated false alarms.

Integrated fire testing and commissioning can solve such concerns before they emerge. While fire devices are often inspected and approved for their individual performance, checking their efficiency in a cause and effect matrix is likely to be a better indicator of the building’s overall fire strategy.

A conjoined effort is most helpful for facilities management operators in terms of fire evacuation strategies, John Noone, associate director for fire engineering in the Middle East at Arup, remarked.

“The key problem [with] standalone testing is [lack of clarity] about who the overarching custodian or guardian is for a fire strategy,” he said. “[Integrated testing and commissioning] is not significantly complex, but is a process that needs to be seen through to completion.

“Standalone testing is [quite good], and you might have a good fire strategy in place too, but the pitfall is [when] it’s not brought together in a holistic fashion,” Noone said, adding projects would benefit from greater fire safety documentation during the design stage.

He concluded: “Even after a building is five years old, you want to be able to come in and see what has been implemented. A commissioning steering group in the project team can ensure facilities managers are on board and can plan their resources for when building operations commence.”

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