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The issue of fire safety in the UAE has proved a thorny one over the past few years and matters haven't been helped by a spate of dramatic highrise blazes. In January, tenants in the 32-storey Marina Tower were forced to flee their homes after a fire broke out in a restaurant on the ground floor.
Other disturbing incidents include a fire at tbe Al Hafeet Tower in Sharjah in the middle of last year, which was worryingly similar to a blaze that had gutted the Tamweel Tower in Dubai a few months earlier. The 40-storey Al Tayer tower in Sharjah also suffered a similar fate in April 2012.
At the Fire and Emergency Middle East exhibition, which was held in Abu Dhabi last week, fire safety experts from around the world gathered to discuss various fire safety issues and identify the best solutions for firefighting and protection, emergency medical services, first response and public safety.
Fire prevention experts have warned that the material that sheaths many buildings in the UAE is highly flammable. The panel cladding is often made of a combustible thermoplastic core held between two sheets of aluminium. When this panel ignites, fire spreads rapidly to the top of the building, while sending naming debris hurtling down. Fortunately, the UAE has now passed legislation banning the use of flammable material on the facades of new buildings.
There are also reports of building contractors allegedly cutting comers when creating fire safety systems to save money and speed up project completion times.
However, there is no doubt authorities in the UAE are taking fire prevention extremely seriously, which is evident at high-profile events such as this exhibition, which was attended by a large number of senior officials from government ministries and emergency services were in attendance.
And judging by the high level of interest in new firefighting and fire prevention technology seen at the show, fire safety is set to be very big business in the near future.
Local fire protection system manufacturer Naffico had one of the most impressive exhibits as it is currently leading the way in next-generation rescue and incident command support system vehicles. The company's new range of futuristic rescue fire trucks feature gadgets such as then will imaging cameras, high-speed ladder deployment equipment, top-of-the-range communication systems and the ability to carry hundreds of litres of water and foam.
Regional companies that produce fire extinguishers, such as Saudi Factory for Fire Equipment, were also out in force. They were promoting a neat line of high-performance fire extinguishers, which are easy to operate and have achieved top quality marks and official recognition for meeting international standards.
New products for the public are becoming ever more available, too. Fire Knock Out (FKO), promoted by Protect UAE at the show, is a revolutionary fire extinguishing product from the Netherlands that starts working at lightning speed upon contact with a blaze - throttling the fire before it bas a chance to spread.
The product consists of a plastic container filled with a harmless fire extinguishing fluid and activation powder material, on which a short fuse is fitted As soon as the fuse comes into contact with an open Dame, the container splits open and all the oxygen in and around the seat of the fire is removed very quickly, thereby killing it.
''The great thing about FKO is its speed of reaction,'' says Abdulla Al Ameri, Chairman of Protect UAE. ''Those golden minutes of reaction time means this product can make the difference between life and death.''
However, despite the wealth of fire safety products and technology hitting the market, the onus for improving the situation in the UAE is definitely on building owners, fire safety planners and construction companies. And this needs to happen well before the first bit of ground is broken on a new project, Peter Stephenson, Associate Director - Fire Engineering at consultancy firm Buro Happold and a prominent regional figure on fire prevention, told Property Weekly at the show.
''Every new building should have a fire strategy that contains information relating to the building's fire protection systems and management plans. As a minimum, the strategy should include occupancy type, construction type, travel distances to exits and places of safety, the number of exits and their locations, the time it takes to escape and management arrangements,'' he says.
Once a building bas been constructed, Stephenson says there should be a clear plan by the owners and responsible persons to keeping the property and its inhabitants safe.
''It is crucial that you do not exceed the maximum occupancy within any part of a building, that fire exits with proper signage are maintained, that there is compliance with electrical codes to prevent overheating and ignition from electrical faults that the correct type of fire extinguishers are placed and maintained in easily accessible areas, that fire alarm systems for detection and warning of fire are maintained and that buildings are periodically inspected for violation'' says Stephenson.
As fire safety professionals and building designers in the UAE and across the GCC work together, experts agree that the adoption of internationally recognised fire codes will become more commonplace, helping matters greatly. A fire code is a set of rules prescribing minimum requirements to prevent fire and explosion hazards arising from storage, handling or use of dangerous materials, or from other specific hazardous conditions. It should complement the buildiog code.
There is also much the general public can do to reduce the risk of potentially deadly fires. A shockingly huge proportion of the blazes that have occurred in recent years have been caused by carelessly disarded cigarettes, and individual building managers are now firmly clamping down on tenants who throw butts off their balconies.
Recent legislation also means tenants are not off the hook when it comes to keeping their building safe in general. The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice clearly spells out the public's responsibility towards fire safety and urges everyone to approach and, if needed, report to the police those who cause fire hazards such as blocking stairwells or tampering with fire extinguishers.
Fire prevention is mostly common sense, but there are some potentially dangerous situations that everyone should really consider, says Stephenson. Common fire hazards to watch out for include the improper use and maintenance of cooking appliances, unattended cooking pots, combustible storage areas with insufficient protection, candles and other open flames, carelessly stored flammable liquids and aerosols, unplugged household appliances and leading batteries.
And if you're in the habit of smoking shisha or having a barbecue on your balcony, be warned: these activities are not only fire hazards, they can also draw stiff fines from the municipality.
Did you know?
The evolution of fire safety legislation around the world often follows major incidents, particularly if lives have been lost. A good example was the Great Fire of London, which occurred on September 2, 1666 and burned for four days, destroying 70 per cent of the city. Miraculously, only six people died. The fire was declared a national disaster and resulted in the first set of building regulations to be developed.
In case of emergency: Here's what you need to know if you'll find yourself in the middle of a building fire, flood or earthquake
• Alert everyone in your home or office and don't stop for valuables or to investigate the fire.
• Before opening doors, check them with the back of your hand if they're warm, don't open - the fire is on the other side.
• If there is a lot of smoke, crawl along the floor where the air will be cleanest.
• Alert neighbouring flats/offices by banging the doors on your way out. Set off the fire alarm if there is one.
• Once you are outside, call 997 for the fire service and 999 for the police or ambulance.
• If the fire is blocking your exit or if the stairs in your building are blocked by fire or smoke, stay calm and go back inside and wait for help to arrive.
• Have an escape plan ready. Talk to all occupants about what you would do if there is a fire. Choose an escape route, which should be the easiest way out of the building.
• Never drive through a flooded road. Back up and try a different route if possible.
• Listen to the radio for updates on the worst-hit areas and emergency services advice.
• Do not stay in a flooded car. Abandon the vehicle and move to higher ground immediately.
• Don't walk into moving water. Just six inches of moving water can knock you dawn.
• Don't overestimate your car's ability to drive through floodwater. Six inches of water is enough to reach the bottom of most passenger cars. Driving in water this deep is enough to cause you to lose control of or stall the car.
• Stay calm, if you're indoors, stay inside. If you're outside, stay outside.
• If indoors, either stand against a wall near the centre of the building, stay in a doorway or crawl under heavy furniture. Stay away from windows and outside doors.
• If you're outdoors, stay in the open away from power lines and buildings as debris could fall on you.
• Don't use matches, candles or any flame. Broken gas lines and fire don't mix.
• If you're in a car, stop and stay inside until the earthquake stops.
• Turn on the radio. Don't waste your mobile phone's battery. Use it only when absolutely necessary.
• Expect aftershocks.
• If you're at work, follow the emergency plan or the instructions of the person in charge.
Source: Kristy Savage, Special to Property Weekly, gulfnews.com