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Fire is a serious threat to the built environment. Around the GCC there have been tragic examples of the damage fire can do, from the deaths in the 2012 Villagio Mall fire in Qatar, to the unresolved fate of apartment owners in the now-abandoned Tamweel Tower, in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers, and to the more recent incident of the massive fire that erupted early Saturday morning at The Torch in Dubai Marina.
Although no fatalities were reported, it is still not clear what caused the fire that started on the 50th floor of the residential skyscraper in the Marina.
Select Group, the developers of the Torch, commended the Dubai authorities and Kingfield Owners Association for their swift response in helping to bring the situation under control. Currently, The Kingfield Owners Association has set up a support centre on the 97th floor of the adjacent Princess Tower for all affected residents.
“Property owners and tenants need to appreciate that fire is a very serious threat,” says Tom Bell-Wright, CEO and Chief Technical Officer of Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants, an engineering firm that provides independent quality assurance for the construction sector.
“Experience says there is a fairly low risk of an occurrence, so perhaps people don’t consider it such a danger any more. However, the damage that can potentially be caused by even a small fire is significant.”
Bell-Wright says the reason we don’t see more fires is down to the fire regulations mandating — among other things — construction products that are fire-resistant or with limited combustibility, and of course sprinklers for commercial buildings.
“We have a comprehensive set of regulations called the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice from Dubai Civil Defence (DCD), as well as the Abu Dhabi International Building Code, presently [enforced] only for government buildings and voluntary for others,” says Bell-Wright.
“Property owners should take steps to comply with those requirements.”
Running a fire-testing laboratory gives Bell-Wright a unique perspective on the materials and products that go into buildings.
Coming under the broad heading of passive fire protection, things such as fire-rated walls and doors, which are used to separate different uses in a building, to protect stairwells, electrical rooms, garbage chutes etc., are tested for resistance to fire.
Materials such as finishes, ceilings, carpets and upholstery must meet requirements for flame spread and smoke development, collectively known as their reaction to fire. Building exteriors must pass a test that simulates a room fire bursting out of a window.
“We conduct all of these tests in our laboratory, so there is no reason why substandard products should be used in any of [Dubai’s] buildings,” says Bell-Wright.
These tests coupled with an expert familiarity with the regulatory requirements means Bell-Wright has a clear and straightforward view of how fire safety in buildings could be most rapidly improved in the UAE.
“[From] our perspective, I have to say that verified compliance with the DCD regulations and the Life Safety Code requirements for materials and products, combined with regular inspections, as also mandated by the National Fire Protection Association, is a key element.
“We need a cultural shift towards a willingness of suppliers and contractors to embrace the requirements — which exists in more mature markets — and away from a feeling that fire regulations are onerous and an unnecessary burden.”
This is a view shared by Terry Johnson, a senior fire service advisor with the General Directorate, DCD. “The most rapid improvement for fire safety of buildings in the UAE would be to rigorously enforce the all-encompassing Life Safety Codes of Practice introduced in 2011,” explains Johnson.
“This set of codes is very descriptive and based on best practice applied for the region. These now must be adopted without question, followed by stiff enforcement practices for violators, or non-compliant situations.”
The codes are available from DCD and can be downloaded as a detailed 700-plus page PDF document. There is also an extensive, but more reader-friendly, frequently-asked-questions file that covers just over 100 of the most common queries.
The idea of best practice in fire safety is one that most authorities aspire to achieve. Johnson sees it as a valuable benchmarking mechanism.
“Best practice can be considered as a philosophical approach, based around continuous learning and improvement,” he says. “It is meant to be a system of integration into the management system of an organisation, giving equal consideration to life safety as to quality and or productivity.”
Implementing best practice means using the latest scientific and technological knowledge to prevent fires and any subsequent losses.
While there are always new developments in the areas of fire detection and suppression, and people can continue to strive for the most modern and up-to-date technologies, there is another less technological approach too.
That comes down to promoting a new era in safety culture. Johnson believes that the fire safety essentials for property owners in the UAE are to ensure that all the basic fire safety principles are considered.
This can be achieved by separating the issues into areas of concentration: life safety and emergency pre paredness; hazard perception and risk assessment; and action plans and protection measures.
“These essential measures are considered as a minimum for the protection of life and property,” says Johnson. “This in turn protects your asset and gives assurances to interested parties that you have created and maintain a safe environment.”
By following such measures and helping to build awareness that they are important, property owners can not only give themselves an additional selling point in a crowded market, they can also contribute to improving standards across the industry.
“We just have to keep spreading the message that buildings should be constructed and maintained to minimize the risk of loss to life and property, as a normal part of social responsibility,” says Bell-Wright. “By following the regulations, which are in place, this can be achieved.”
Source: Stuart Matthews, Special to Property Weekly