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Will the UAE’s 2016 fire code hurt construction?

The UAE’s upcoming fire and life safety code has been designed to tighten up accountability and improve safety within high-density developments

A fire gutted The Address Downtown Dubai on NYE 2015. (Getty Images)
A fire gutted The Address Downtown Dubai on NYE 2015. (Getty Images)

Originally slated for implementation in March 2016, the UAE’s updated fire safety code has been delayed. The legislation, which is being developed by civil defence authorities from across the country, is now expected to arrive next month.

News of the delay came from a senior official at Dubai Civil Defence (DCD), who told local daily The National that the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code 2016 was taking longer to finalise than originally anticipated.

Plans to update the country’s fire laws were initially announced in the aftermath of the blaze that tore through The Address Downtown Dubai on New Year’s Eve, 2015. Of course, the code’s nature means that UAE authorities cannot afford to rush through the legislation, which promises to increase accountability for fire safety across the local construction industry.

Speaking at Intersec 2016 in January, Pramod Challa, chief of engineering at DCD, said the updated fire code would expand the role of clients, consultants, contractors, and suppliers in ensuring that projects are fire resistant. This responsibility will also extend into a selection of category modules, including facility, school, and hospital management.

Once introduced, the code will represent a significant addition to the guidelines that will shape the UAE’s future buildings. It highlights the need for improved fire protection and prevention systems in large-scale buildings with high footfall.

As Abhishek Chhabra, business development manager at Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants (TBW), points out, high-density projects such as these require detailed studies of their buildings’ operational expectations. He explains: “Typically, when a development firm wants to design a high-density building – like a mall, for example – it will hire two specialists: an architect to design it, and a consultant to provide detailed engineering. These could be the same firm too.

“The consultancy that conducts detailed engineering will include – or sub-contract – a fire specialist, who will devise a strategy in terms of how to prepare against potential fires. Say there’s a high-rise, mixed-use building, which includes offices, residences, and a hotel; in such a scenario, it is critical that certain factors are considered.”

In addition to average footfall, crowd type represents an important factor. Whether the crowd is educated or semi-educated, whether it is permanently based in the building and so likely to be aware of the structure’s egress points – all such aspects must be considered, says TBW’s expert.

“These are typically defined as occupancy type and occupancy load, and are the key [factors to consider while] designing fire safety [strategies],” Chhabra continues, adding that structural designs have to account for operational conditions in order to enhance a building’s fire resistance.

Unsurprisingly, the UAE’s aviation sector is keen to avoid fire-related missteps. The country’s airports are being constructed and expanded with an increased focus on systems integration, which should be embedded within commercial strategies.

Speaking at Middle East Fire 2016, John Boyce, head of fire and life safety at Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC), said: “People test the fire alarm and test the [fire suppression or detection] device and the interface, but integrated cause and effect testing is very rarely done.”

Boyce’s views were echoed by John Noone, construction giant Arup’s associate director for fire engineering in the Middle East. Noone advocates the practice of cause-and-effect fire testing, which is designed to ensure that fire detection, suppression, and control devices are linked and operate as intended during a blaze.

“Cause-and-effect [models are] also key to understanding how various devices work together, which is significant when looking at large facilities like airports,” he added.

Stressing the importance of testing coordination across various evacuation zones – such as air-side, land-side, and concourse – Boyce continued: “It’s about [end-user] devices. Do the doors open? Do the fans operate? Are they integrated?

“[Abu Dhabi’s] Midfield Terminal has 300 zones and over 20,000 devices. The focus then is to check the cause and effect [of all these systems], because that’s what deals with fires,” Boyce continued.

The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code 2016 looks set to add clarity to the situation, according to Chhabra, whose firm is a part of the code committee comprising civil defence officials and industry specialists.

Whilst the construction sector has expressed concern about increased costs due to the new code, Chhabra is confident the move will prove prudent in the longer term.“For example, if there are lax [standard] requirements in a country, you could find Grade A material in the market, with Grade B being considered acceptable.

“There will always be different price points, but if [there is no law] that says only Grade A is acceptable, and Grades B and C are illegal, then A might come across as expensive,” Chhabra says, adding that quality will eventually find mainstream acceptance and uptake in the Middle East.

“Products that are more fire resistant are being invented everywhere today, and they’re available in this region in good numbers too. Calling something ‘expensive’ is a matter of perspective,” he concludes.

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