Exploring fire safety within UAE construction

As fires continue to engulf structures across the UAE, such accidents bring into question the safety practices and measures that are adopted during the construction of local projects

COMMENT, Business

Last week’s news headlines were buzzing with stories about the raging fire at another skyscraper in Dubai. The blaze, which is believed to have started on the 60th floor of the Sulafa Tower residential building in Dubai Marina, helped by a steady wind, rapidly spread to the eight floors above.

Unfortunately, the Sulafa Tower incident is not a one-off mishap. Instead, it is the latest in a series of fires to hit the UAE. It’s hard to forget smoke billowing from the The Address Downtown Dubai on New Year’s Eve, (a blaze which eventually left the entire structure charred), or the fire that partially burnt the Torch Tower, also in Dubai Marina, in 2012. Other emirates haven’t been spared either. The fire the Ajman One residential tower wrecked a major portion of the building and left many inhabitants homeless.

Although no casualties were reported during any of these incidents – swift responses from civil defence authorities deserve significant credit – the spate of accidents that has occurred across the nation during recent years compels us to repeatedly ask the question: how safe it is to live and work in the UAE’s glitzy and glamorous skyscrapers?

In order to prevent unfortunate fires in the future, authorities are in the process of implementing updated fire and life safety codes, designed in conjunction with the local construction industry. The new UAE Fire and Life Safety Codes of Practice 2016 will be the second edition of the standards and regulations, first launched in 2011 in a bid to improve fire safety in the country. Furthermore, the 2016 code also increases the accountability of the consultants and owners involved in a building’s development.

But despite work to strengthen the fire safety norms, damage is still being caused to the reputation of the construction industry at a time when market conditions are challenging and foreign investment is difficult to come by. Questions are being raised about the safety of raw materials, insulation, and cladding used during the construction of a project, as well as about the level of skill and craftsmanship possessed by the local labour workforce.

Reports that surfaced after last year’s The Address fire said most of the towers built in Dubai prior to 2012 used non fire-rated exterior cladding. Aluminium composite panels, which have been used to cover high-rises time and again, have been linked to the majority of the fire incidents in the country.

Hopefully, the recent Sulafa Tower incident will act as a wake-up call for industry professionals to sit up and take into account the kind of practices adopted during the construction process. Authorities will also impose fines on building contractors, should they be found to have violated the safety rules with regards to new projects – that includes, and will not be limited to, using faulty fire-safety material and flammable cladding.

It seems clear that preventing fire tragedies and ensuring a safe and secure living and working environment will only happen through a collaborative effort between the authorities and residents.

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