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The recent fires at Torch Tower in Dubai Marina and Kite Residences on Al Reem Island in Abu Dhabi have returned the issue of fire safety in the UAE to the public realm, and we once again ask ourselves if the buildings we’re living in offer suitable protection to our families and property. Although nobody was seriously hurt in Torch Tower, the fire at a local tyre shop in Musaffah over the same weekend tragically claimed the lives of ten people and the Police and Civil Defence Departments are in the process of establishing the cause.
Cast your mind back to the Tamweel Tower fire incident in 2012. It did not result in any deaths, but more than two years on the tower is still untouched and hundreds of families are displaced, resulting in great emotional and financial distress. Considering that the insurance provisions have fallen short of the actual loss suffered by Tamweel unit owners, some residents are now enduring some very challenging times.
Combustiblematerial Older buildings like Tamweel are typically finished with composite cladding panels — also termed sandwich panels — comprising thin metal sheet casings with a core of foam plastic thermal insulation, which is both combustible and highly susceptible to flames spreading on the surface. This means that with even a small heat source like a cigarette, the cladding can catch fire and spread to adjacent panels very quickly. This effect is exacerbated by the extensive voids between the cladding and the concrete frame, which, unless fitted with the correct cavity barriers, can allow flames to quickly spread as they seek oxygen, like in Tamweel and the Torch.
One positive result of the Tamweel fire was a revision of legislation in Dubai with regard to the combustibility of cladding panels and provision of proper fire stops to voids and penetrations in the structure and fabric of the building. Although buildings designed since the incident will be safer, there is a very large proportion of buildings built earlier and this factor must be taken into account in assessing their fire load.
In Dubai alone it is estimated that around 250 high-rise buildings and countless lowto mid-rise properties are finished with the older type of composite panels. In addition, we must also consider whether active measures are installed, maintained and functioning correctly in our buildings, an issue we often discover as being to the contrary during inspections. These include fire detection, alarm, suppression (sprinkler) and smoke control systems, which in high-rise buildings are increasingly complex and as a result must be installed and maintained only by contractors approved by the Dubai Civil Defence.
Reports from several towers that have suffered fires in the region state that many residents heard the alarm but did not take action until security came knocking on their doors, assuming it to be one of the building’s frequent false alarms. While these issues are yet to be extensively investigated, one certainly would not be surprised that this is the case considering how common they are.
Other notable faults we frequently encounter include broken or missing fire doors, blocked escape routes, missing fire separation between floors and non-compliant escape travel distances for occupants. Although these items may appear trivial and insignificant in relation to a faulty fire detection system, any one of them could result in serious fire spread throughout the building or result in people being trapped in the upper storeys of a building. Consider the panic that could ensue and the problem is not so trivial.
The issues we find during building inspections often put a sizeable strain on owners associations to put right defects that were present before they took over management of the property. But the sooner they can be ascertained after building completion the better, especially if the structure is within the defects liability period — the year after completion where contractors can still be held liable for any defective works attributed to their scope of responsibility.
While the owners of properties affected by fire are considering retrospectively the safety of owning freehold in a tower with significant fire risk, we must all ask ourselves what steps can be taken to bring these issues to light and safeguard our assets.
Source: Craig Ross, Special to Property Weekly
The author is Head of Project and Building Consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell.