"Placing people's lives above all else" at every stage of construction

Sam Alcock speaks about the need to collaborate with fire safety consultants at the earliest stages of a building's life cycle

"Placing people's lives above all else" at every stage of construction. [representational image]
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"Placing people's lives above all else" at every stage of construction. [representational image]

Fires in buildings under construction, structures undergoing renovation, and completed establishments are not a new phenomenon in the Middle East region. The obligation for various building stakeholders from developers to contractors, suppliers, and maintenance teams to adhere to strict regulations in the region have considerably reduced the risk of potential loss of life or property damage.

The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice 2018 released by the UAE Ministry of Interior and the General Command of Civil Defense has raised the bar for the nation’s-built environment.

In addition, the code is very comprehensive as it details regulations on a score of key issues, including construction, means of egress, fire service access, firestopping mechanisms, fire detection and protection systems, flammable liquids and material, smart and remote monitoring systems, as well as risk assessment systems, among others.

In conversation with Construction Week, the director of Tenable Fire Engineering Consultancy, Sam Alcock, says: “The UAE’s Civil Defense team has prepared a detailed fire and life safety code, covering a lot of different areas. For instance, the code specifically refers to buildings under construction and what procedures ought to be implemented, including safe work procedures, producing a fire safety plan, creating access for fire services, preparing an exit strategy for the workers and people on site, and the storage of materials.”

Similarly, each completed building needs to have an annual maintenance contractor that visits the building every year to ensure that the fire and life safety systems are operational and are in compliance with the code. 

“Another important aspect that needs to be addressed within completed buildings – believe it or not – is housekeeping,” Alcock explains.

It is crucial to ensure that every building in the UAE is well-maintained. For example, it is essential that the housekeeping staff within a building prevent materials from being stored in the staircase of a building; prevent equipment from blocking access to the fire exits on either side; and prevent fire exit doors from being locked.

Alcock adds: “The upkeep of a completed building is crucial to its safety. If there’s a faulty detector or an alarm that is not working, it needs to be replaced immediately. Fire drills, which are also a code requirement, need to be practiced regularly. It’s surprising when we see these basics overlooked in completed buildings.”

When it comes to buildings under renovation, it is essential to have a fire strategy outlined as to how work can be carried out safely without disrupting existing operational conditions. It is mandatory to ensure that the renovation does not interfere with the egress for current occupants of the establishment.

He explains: “In an existing live building such as a hotel that needs to be renovated, you don’t want to close down your hotel just because of renovations that need to be completed in a certain part of the establishment, as that will cause you to lose money. It is in the client’s best interest to keep the establishment operational.

“However, this also means that the fire strategy should take into consideration that the fire exits and staircases are not blocked during the renovation, and contingencies are in place to ensure the safety of the hotel's staff and occupants.

“The fire life safety systems should remain operational at all times – and these are things that are easy to be overlooked, especially in buildings that are under construction or are being renovated. Everything boils down to having a water-tight fire strategy that dictates how things are going to work when construction or renovation is ongoing,” he adds.

Start at the beginning

Although this sounds a bit obvious, it is not always practised in the realm of fire and safety standards. The expertise of a fire safety engineering consultant should be considered much before a building is completed. In fact, it is crucial even before construction of a structure begins.

“The first step is to ensure that the design is correct and is in accordance with the UAE fire and life safety code. If we get this stage correct, the building has a much higher chance of not only being compliant in every following stage, but it will also be better prepared to control a fire, if one occurs,” Alcock says.

The project lifespan of a building begins in the planning and design stage, and that is where the role of the fire safety consultant begins, as well.

He adds: “Having a fire and life safety consultant involved at the earliest stage of a project means placing people’s lives above all else when the drawings of a building are most flexible. Even at a pre-concept stage, we as fire consultants can advise our clients about strategically locating exit stairs as well as other fundamental code requirements with minimal disruption to the design.”

It becomes much harder when owners, developers, or contractors bring a fire safety engineering consultant into the project at the construction phase, and are told that a fire exit or an additional staircase needs to be added.

Alcock explains: “For instance, if a building plans to have a ballroom on the third or fourth floor, stakeholders constructing the building need to take into account that such a venture involves a high occupancy on this floor. This calls for the need to have an adequate means of escape – we assess and then advise on the number of staircases that will be required in order to accommodate all of those people.”

Involving a fire safety engineering consultant in the project conceptual stage is also essential in terms of providing access to the building for the fire service.

In the event of a fire, subject to the type of building planned, emergency service personnel will need to access a sufficient section of the building in order to control the spread of the fire, as well as ensure safe evacuation of the building.

“The fire brigade needs to have coverage of a certain number of sides of a building, subject to its size and design. At an early stage, fire consultants can engage with all stakeholders, including those who will eventually work on the landscape and the building surroundings, to ensure that there are roads providing access to three quarters or the entire building perimeter, if needed. Such basic steps can save lives,” Alcock adds.

Awareness and implementation

Once stakeholders including developers, architects, contractors, and sub-contractors have coordinated with the fire safety engineering consultant, and have been brought up to speed on the fire and safety requirements in the design stage of a building, it is equally important to ensure that these planned strategies are implemented during the construction of a building.

Any changes that are made to the construction plans of a building must remain well within the UAE's fire and safety code's requirements.

Alcock says: “We have witnessed situations wherein the sprinkler systems are installed incorrectly due to not following the fire strategy report. We are there to supervise, assist, advise, and ensure that the work is being done properly.”

Firestopping is another important element to be taken into consideration during the construction phase. The penetrations between the walls and floors of a building, need to be adequately protected to prevent the spread of fire, if one occurs. The fire strategy report within a building must be comprehensive, in order to include all such details.

“The decision to involve a fire safety engineering consultant during construction can make or break a project. One of the hardest aspects of a construction that we help with is stairwell pressurisation," he adds.

"We have also seen tests where we can’t physically open a door, and that can be scary – imagine a child attempting to open the fire exit in an emergency and being unable to do so.”

The UAE’s Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice 2018 aims to ensure that buildings within the nation are compliant if they are to be certified and used for their intended purposes.

Finally, all stakeholders in the operations stage of a building including owners, staff, occupants, and maintenance teams within a building must be made aware of the emergency exits and procedures in case of a fire.

In buildings such as hotels, where guests are unaware of where the fire exits are, the onus will lie on the fire wardens, emergency response teams in the building, and the staff – all of whom need to be aware, and well-equipped if a fire were to occur.

“At the end of the day, fire engineering consultancy is the key to the entire construction and maintenance of a building. Fire consultants provide design requirements that cover every aspect and almost every discipline within a building, including its architecture, MEP, landscape, kitchen, elevators, interior finishes, and security – we provide the design criteria for other disciplines to follow,” Alcock concludes.

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