A passive approach to fire safety can save the day
In the early days of the operation of Tom Bell-Wright’s testing consultancy, a client brought in a steel door and said it would hold back a fire for four hours.
The qualities of the door had to be put to the test, to achieve the required fire rating. The test was set up, with the doors built into a gas powered furnace. Once the fire began, the door lasted just 11 minutes, somewhat short of its four hour target.
“They had completely underestimated what was required,” said Tom Bell-Wright, who acts both as CEO and chief technical officer. “It was not the steel that failed, but the seals around the windows and lock.”
Once the fire penetrated the window and lock area, the door’s integrity was destroyed and the rest was history. The underestimation is important: people’s ideas of what will work in a fire count for nothing until they’ve been put to the test.
Bell-Wright’s operation is formally accredited for fire testing through the Emirates National Accreditation Service (ENAS), plus the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS). When the ENAS accreditation was awarded late last year, Bell-Wright’s hope was that the presence of the testing furnace would make it easier for those in construction to comply with regulations.
Speaking at the time the Minister of Environment and Water and chairman of the Emirates Standardisation and Metrology Authority (ESMA), Rashid Ahmed Bin Fahad, said: “Accreditation of this laboratory provides confidence in the market and further enhances the infrastructure of quality for assuring safety and conformity of products and services.”
Most consulting work the company does comes through architects, project managers, or directly from developers. The company does façade consulting and curtain wall testing too, but the fire testing side has been busy over recent months, with Bell-Wright believing the testing furnace to have given local manufacturers some added impetus.
“I think it stimulated local manufacturers,” he said. “Before we had the fire testing, a manufacturer would have to send doors to Europe, by providing the testing on site here it becomes much easier for them to get certified.”
While testing is becoming more the norm in the region, Bell-Wright believes some projects still look to save money by waiving tests, whether for fire, façades or curtain walls.
“This is pretty misguided,” he said. “Waiving testing is very short-sighted, but sometimes contractors see testing as an inconvenience.”
“While the big architecture companies set the standards for how this work is done and are hired by developers because they want a certain standard, that’s only a proportion of the jobs in the region.”
A short-sighted approach to passive fire safety can ultimately cost money and lives, if the worst happens. Investment up front can save a much greater amount of cash and lost opportunity further down the line. Passive fire protection can be key to reducing the odds of a fire occurring and to minimise any damage through containment.
“There is definitely not enough attention placed on the importance of passive fire protection,” argues Mark Lavender, sales and marketing director for Promat Fire Protection.
“A lot of attention is focused on active systems like alarms and fire extinguishers but an integrated approach with both active and passive systems working together to protect an asset would be more successful.”
Furthermore, the real benefit of passive fire protection lies in maintaining the structure of building in the event of fire and preventing collapse.
“Maintaining compartmentation can stop the spreading of a fire from building to building, as we have typically witnessed in heavy built-up locations like industrial zones,” says Lavender, pointing to the case of Dubai Industrial City which fell victim to one of the biggest fires to hit the region two years ago.
Starting as an explosion in a fireworks warehouse, the fire spiralled out of control and engulfed more than 80 neighbouring warehouses in its wake. With scenarios like this, it is not surprising that fire protection specialists feel frustrated by complaints about the cost of fire protection systems.
“After all, how expensive is the total loss of your business?” Lavender points out. “The cost of passive fire protection systems are minimal in the overall construction cost and are only a minor expense in comparison.”
Raising awareness about safety and cost implications in these situations is one of the tasks ahead of Anand Raghavan, area sales manager for Invicta Durasteel, a fire resistant partition system.
“People talk about fire rating of four hours, but there are two things you need to consider in the case of a partition,” he said. “One is integrity, the other is insulation.
“Integrity refers to the fire being allowed to spread to the other side of the partition. Insulation means that even if temperature of the fire is 1500 degree on the fire side, on the other side its not more than 180 degrees.
“This is a very important factor, because even if there’s no fire, without insulation, something could melt or explode.”
Durasteel is made from fibre reinforced cement sandwiched between two punched steel sheets. The product has been in the market in Dubai for about a year and a half and like other organisations introducing something new, the company is doing the contracting work itself.
Over the last 18 months it has completed around 10 projects, including installations for Dow Chemicals and at the Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Plant ‘Project M’.
There the company prepared underground tunnels and cable routes to connect buildings. In order to isolate these tunnels from fire hazards, and limit the spread and damage caused in the event of a fire occurring, the client decided fire walls were needed within the tunnels, to provide effective compartmentation.
On the same site, the company also designed and is installing four generator fire walls. The generators are located adjacent to each other and each one is surrounded on three sides by concrete walls.
However, due to the fact the generators need to be moved outside of the building for periodic maintenance, one side around each generator had to be left open.
With a road set to run along the unprotected open side of the generators, an explosion occurring would have a devastating effect on the facility located opposite.
To prevent this, the company designed removable Durasteel fire walls for the open side of each generator, to contain any explosion from spreading out of the building.
“Our people are coming from the UK to do the installations and our main job now is to promote it to consultants,” said Raghavan. “We see huge potential in the region.”
As regulations continue to develop, testers and manufacturers of high-specification products will be hoping the rules get tougher. This will encourage greater application of effective passive measures and improve the long-term safety of buildings.