Experts laud updates to UAE fire safety programmes

The number and size of fire safety initiatives in the UAE is steadily increasing, with the number of fire accidents in the country reducing by 31% in 2016.

Fire safety initiatives are on the rise in the UAE.
Fire safety initiatives are on the rise in the UAE.

It is incontestable that fire safety is one of the top priorities of the UAE’s construction industry.

From the globally publicised fire at The Address Hotel Downtown Dubai in December 2015, to the fire at Torch Tower this August – its second within a 30-month period – the last two years have seen a spate of high-profile fire accidents in the country.

Nevertheless, fire safety standards appear to have improved during the period. The number of fire accidents in the UAE reduced to 2,352 in 2016 – a 31% drop against 3,388 in 2015 – the country’s Ministry of Interior revealed, according to a report by state news agency, WAM, in February. Moreover, a national commitment to reducing fire accidents has prompted a prevention-oriented review of fire safety standards by both public and private sector experts.

In January 2016 – less than a fortnight after the Address Hotel Downtown Dubai fire – the Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) announced that it would review all buildings in the UAE to gauge any fire safety risks that they may pose. Shortly after, it was confirmed that an updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice would be launched to follow the standards and regulations that were initially launched in 2011. Slated for a 2016 release, an announcement about the updated code was made at Intersec 2017’s Fire Safety Conference this January.

At the time, First Lt Taher Hassan Altaher, head of DCD’s inspection and permitting section, said the updated code had been prepared based on international references and feedback from consultants, contractors, and property developers.

Construction consultants and fire safety professionals tell Construction Week that the updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice will make the country’s built environment safer and more fire-proof. According to these experts, key changes  have been made to the document in order to bolster the country’s life safety performance.

This July, Alexander Castellanos, the deputy head of fire and life safety at construction consultancy WSP, told Construction Week that the updated code “is intended to make requirements more straightforward and provide clarity for qualified fire safety professionals”.

He continued: “It is relevant to note that the 2017 [edition] is not necessarily a new code, but an update of the 2011 document. Similar to codes in other countries and jurisdictions, it includes requirements based on lessons learned from buildings that are in operation, new technologies, and fire events within recent years. A major overhaul has been implemented to classify buildings according to their risk profiles and associated fire and life safety requirements.” 

Peter van Gorp, director of fire and life safety at UAE-headquartered consultancy, AESG, echoes Castellanos’s views.

Van Gorp tells Construction Week that he first saw a comprehensive copy of the updated code this February, and another one in August, adding that there are “some slight changes” visible in the latter version, which is laid out on A4 pages instead of the previous A3-page style.

WSP’s Castellanos confirms that the updated code’s “most recent distribution was in August”. Speaking to Construction Week, he adds that the document contains 20 chapters, and two annexures – annexure 1, which covers frequently asked questions, and annexure 2, which specifies drawing submission requirements.

He adds: “With respect to technical changes, the key clarification is the area requirements for fire-fighting lobbies, which [have been] reduced from a minimum of 14m2 to 9m2. We are continuously coordinating the implementation of the 2017 code into [our] projects.”

Commenting on the additions to the updated code – which the AESG expert says is double the size of the 2011 edition – van Gorp points to Castellanos’s reference about a chapter outlining stakeholder roles and responsibilities.

At the Intersec 2016 exhibition, a DCD contingent had revealed that the updated fire code places increased emphasis on the responsibility of building owners and consultants.

At the time, DCD officials said that consultants would be responsible for the overall operations and lifecycle of a building, including acquiring the no-objection certificate (NOC) for design works from civil defence bodies; contractor qualification; inspection during construction; and testing and commissioning works. 

Van Gorp reveals that in the new code, these requirements are part of the chapter outlining stakeholder roles and responsibilities, adding: “There is a clearly defined responsibility [for] the consultant of record, and a clearly defined role for the contractor as well. However, the consultant of record has to check [these processes], and it will be held liable if […] a building [system] is not installed as per the design standards [or] specifications that were approved by the civil defence [authority].” 

While these responsibilities were also mentioned in the code’s previous iterations, van Gorp says “they have [now] been made clearer, and they’re all clubbed together in one [chapter]” in the updated document.

Van Gorp goes on to outline the additional topics that have been covered in the new code: “There is also a new dedicated chapter […] on façades and curtain walls, glazing, and roofing systems, [and another] on flammable and combustible liquids. There are new requirements stipulated on, for instance, marinas, [and] there is also a chapter on emergency response procedures.” 

The new chapters, van Gorp explains, make the fire code “more comprehensive”, as well as capable of being used “for all sorts of applications”.

He continues: “While the 2011 edition was already a major step forward, [it] was more like a technical code, [and] the new UAE fire code is a more comprehensive [document]. Not only does it explain [fire safety requirements] technically, but also [mentions] the steps that need to be taken [to achieve compliance]. 

“And it’s not only about the design; for instance, safety during the construction stages [has been] addressed, as well [as] how the emergency response and emergency evacuation must be done, and the requirements with regards to that. So, it is more than just a technical guideline on the aspects [of fire safety].” 

A key point of discussion surrounding fire safety in the UAE has been building façades, and major local institutions are already implementing initiatives to avert the fire risks associated with façade systems. For instance, Dubai’s Real Estate Regulatory Agency (RERA) has started replacing building façades to improve fire-resistance in the emirate, it revealed in a press statement in September. 

Construction Week has yet to receive RERA’s feedback about the number of buildings included in its programme, but according to the agency’s statement, key properties where works have been implemented include Dubai Properties Group’s Executive Towers, Vision Tower, and Bay Square developments in the city’s Business Bay neighbourhood. 

The authority is also urging all building owners to “replace non-fire-resistant building façades in collaboration with the city’s real estate developers”. 

Through the programme, RERA, the regulatory arm of Dubai Land Department (DLD), is targeting façades that lack the necessary levels of fire resistance. RERA’s project is based on the security, safety, and environmental requirements implemented by Dubai Municipality and the Civil Defense Department, its statement revealed. 

While façades “may appear to be similar in appearance when completed, the external cladding composition may fundamentally differ”, according to Irving Schnider, a freelance cladding advisor and building construction technologist, and the author of Façades – a Practical Guide to Curtain Walls and Cladding, Architectural Glass and Natural Stone. 

In a technical paper published exclusively on ConstructionWeekOnline, Schnider wrote: “Typically, only in very exceptional cases are external façades fire-rated and, ideally, each of the components assembled in a cladding installation should be fire-resistant. 

“Individual components cannot be fire-rated in isolation; only a composite system into which they are incorporated – that has been appropriately tested and certified by a recognised authority – should be used. 

“Fire-resistance tests are used to measure fire behaviour, as well as the combined performance of all components used in construction when exposed to a fully developed fire.” 

Construction Week’s query to the DCD regarding any changes that may have been made to cladding specifications under the new code has not, as yet, been answered. However, van Gorp says the updated document “makes it very clear […] that you can use sandwich panels” for projects, but these products must comply with stringent requirements, adding: “These requirements were already [in effect] in the past, but they were not necessarily [...] adhered to. 

“Now, it’s also become a mandatory requirement […] for the project team [and] the stakeholders to make sure that inspections [are carried out], and that’s [...] described in detail in the code,” van Gorp continues, alluding to the chapter in the updated code that outlines stakeholder responsibilities. 

The responsibilities of facilities management (FM) teams have also been specified within the same chapter, van Gorp explains. Speaking to Construction Week, Andre Mars, the quality, health, safety, and environment (QHSE) manager of Cofely Besix Facility Management (CBFM), commends the move.

He adds: “The revised UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice is a step in the right direction, especially when taking into consideration the responsibilities of stakeholders throughout a buildings life cycle. A point worth noting is the requirement for FM service providers to be registered and approved by [civil defence authorities].

“In addition, FM companies now have to designate Civil Defence-approved fire and life safety managers to the buildings they maintain. One would assume that the Civil Defence will have a process in place for vetting the competencies of FM companies to execute their responsibilities under the revised [code]. Should this be the case, it will have a direct impact on improving and sustaining due diligence towards life safety [...] in the long run.”

In July, Castellanos told Construction Week that WSP was part of a committee that provided technical and editorial input for various chapters of the code. At the time, commenting on WSP’s deployment of the code, Castellanos said: “In the first instance, we have communicated the changes within our business. We have also made our clients and their representatives aware of how the code changes will impact their projects.”

Similarly, AESG’s van Gorp confirms that his team has started presenting and explaining the new code’s requirements to its clients: “While we haven’t received an official copy, the civil defence [bodies] in Dubai, and Abu Dhabi – [and] other emirates – are […] implementing the code already. 

“Even before it was released, they were already implementing the new parts of the code that were [available] in the market.” 

Van Gorp reveals his response to those clients that ask if their new buildings must be designed as per the updated code, or any elements of its previous iteration: “There was a transition time when some civil defence authorities were still using parts of the old code, but now you will see more and more institutions going for the new edition.”

It appears that the new code will improve upon programmes and practices that are already delivering tangible results in terms of improving fire and life safety in the UAE.

During the first half of 2017, the UAE recorded 41% fewer fire accidents than the anticipated number set as part of the General Command of the Civil Defense’s (GCCD) 2017-2021 strategy. 

This July, WAM reported that 928 fire cases were handled by the UAE’s civil defence centres in H1 2017. These incidents caused 115 injuries and 12 fatalities – respectively 47% and 8% below the GCCD targets. 

These reported improvements, coupled with the UAE’s regulatory updates as outlined by industry experts, look set to fulfil the country’s commitment to improving its fire safety standards.

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