Improving fire safety in the UAE

Improving UAE fire safetyImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes, Archives,

The government has started taking various measures to improve fire safety standards in the UAE. Against the backdrop of a number of incidents that took place in Sharjah and Dubai in 2012 and last year, the UAE government issued new rulings, including the framing of a fresh law to govern safety standards across the country. This includes applying safety related fines - that existed only in Dubai - to the whole country; and imposing 187 fines with fees ranging from Dh500 to 500,000.

Dubai Civil Defence has also made it mandatory for 10 per cent of supermarket staff and 50 per cent of hotel staff to take fire safety training.

The recent move to make fire alert systems mandatory is part of the Dubai governments efforts to make the city a safer place to live in.

''We have realised that, currently, fire safety in villas is not at the highest level. So we are planning to overhaul the system. In the first phase we will start with new villas and buildings and in the next phase will move to existing buildings,'' Lt Col Jamal Ahmad Ebrahim, Director, Preventive Safety Department at the Dubai Civil Defence, was quoted as saying during the launch of Intersec 2014.

Awareness levels towards fire safety seem to be increasing among policymakers, although the change is not consistent across the region. There is a wide variety of scenarios throughout the Middle East as there is a wide diversity of population. ''This can be impacted by the socio-economic factors that make up particular communities, so I would say it's impossible to give a specific judgement to the Middle East.'' says Garald Todd, Head of Fire and Life Safety, Middle East at WSP, a leading engineering and design consultancy firms.

''But there is a unifying drive from the top, in the case of the UAE, so I think in general things are getting better in terms of consistency,'' he adds.

The industry experts say places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have higher levels of fire safety awareness compared to the rest of the GCC. ''The law is quite stringent in UAE where product approval process is very high. But it differs from region to region. There are some regions where the project maintenance or after sales is not as stringent,'' says Mark Fenton, Business Leader for Honeywell Life Safety in the Middle East and North Africa.

The company conducted a survey last year in the awareness level among residents. Honeywell found that almost 30 per cent of residents regularly ignore fire alarms and are unaware of the location of fire exits. The study also revealed that 53 per cent of residents were unaware of the need to test fire safety equipment, while 48 per cent had never taken part in a fire drill.

''Our survey last year was an eye-opener for all. It revealed an alarming lack of awareness among the residents of the GCC. Although Dubai and the UAE Civil Defence have done a good job in public awareness, the public is not very aware of basic fire safety. But I would say this is not just a regional problem. It's common across the globe due to lack of public awareness or training on fire safety and prevention,'' says Fenton.

Honeywell is preparing to come up with similar study later this year.

However, in terms of standards, many of the Middle East jurisdictions have adopted the US-based National Fire Prevention Authority (NFPA) codes and standards as a basis, at least on paper. ''There will often be additional requirements above and beyond what the NFPA requires, or author their own document that is a compilation of many of the NFPA requirements, in addition to other requirements based upon the influence and experience of the people involved in the process,'' says Todd.

But the challenge, he says, with fire safety in the built environment is that so many organisations and entities are involved in it, whether they know it or not. ''As a professional fire and life safety consultancy, we have a lot of input into fire safety, but it does not end with us. And due to the diversity of where these organizations are from, what their ultimate agendas are, education levels in terms of fire safety, etc, it can be a real mix.'' he adds.

From a residents point of view, the key to fire safety post-construction is education, understanding and willingness to confront the issue from facility management teams. But the fire experts say the reality is that many fire marshals just do not have the required level of understanding of what they should be doing and more importantly, why. ''There is little to no proper handover or integration of the fire marshall team into the handover process to ensure they understand what the actual fire safety strategy for the building is, and what they need to do to maintain the integrity of that strategy,'' says Todd.

Experts attribute a major component of this - in comparison to how it's done in many more developed or mature markets - to proper enforcement of the law. There are serious financial and operational consequences to not adhering to the code, and ensuring all systems are maintained appropriately.

''In the Middle East, the authorities operate in a different cultural environment, and are overburdened with the sheer volume and scale of development here. This is not a criticism, as when you look at where they have come from to where they are, tremendous strides have been made in a remarkably short time in the field of fire safety.'' says Todd.

So with that reality, it is even more important that the market (which includes engineers, designers, architects, consultants, contractors, developers, facility management, etc) understand their role in fire safety and ensure they get the help they need to ensure their properties adhere to the appropriate levels of fire safety required by the government.

At the individual level, one should look at a number of things while buying a new apartment or going for a rented place. Fenton suggests the first question one should ask is whether there is a fire system in the building or not. ''Check on the fire escape routes - note that more people die of smoke inhalation than fire; check if the building fire system is maintained and how often; and check when the last maintenance was done,'' explains Fenton, whose core business is to cater to commercial and industrial buildings and residential towers.

Sharing the adoption level, Fenton says industrial and large-scale projects adopt technology fast compared to villas and small buildings. ''Since the stakes are quite high in mega industrial and commercial projects, they tend to choose the latest and best systems. Villas and small buildings are more concerned with the basic systems, but they want something that is user-friendly,'' he adds.

Securing skyscrapers

The GCC is home to some of the most spectacular skyscrapers in the world - with Dubai having the world's tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa. The NFPA identifies a high-rise as anything that exceeds 23m (equates to a 5-6 storey building) from the lowest level of fire service access. That means there are many high-rises in the region and especially in Dubai.

Does height make a building more vulnerable to fire accidents? Experts don't think so. ''I don't think tall buildings are more vulnerable to fire than a villa or a low-rise building. Tall buildings are constructed keeping many fire proof systems in place such as fire exits, multilevel evacuations, good-quality fire detection systems, fireproof doors and claddings. If you see the stats in the GCC, most fires have taken place in low-rise buildings such as the Villaggio mall in Doha, a Medina hotel, and in Al Quoz and Sharjah industrial area warehouses. The only highrise fire that comes to mind is the one in Jumeirah Lakes Towers,'' says Fenton.

Access to blazes

But what makes high rises a special case for fire safety isn't whether or not it is more vulnerable, its that they are inherently inaccessible due to their height. ''The challenge this poses is not only to occupant evacuation but also to fire services access. If the building is taller than what the fire services can access externally, they must fight the fire internally,'' says Todd.

With high rises, there are many extra measures need to be taken that include protected means of escape for occupants; special access provisions for fire services; automatic sprinkler systems; provision of fire fighting water supply connections strategically throughout the building; and increased restriction on types of building materials (non-combustible), and fire resistance to structure.

Although much is being done to improve fire safety standards in new constructions through enforcement of stringent rules, a lot remains to be done for existing buildings. There is no clearcut rule on this issue. Most of the changes are often done on ad-hoc basis. ''Normally the changes in fire system are done by the landlord or sometimes Civil Defence imposes certain changes if they happen to find the system out-dated during their inspections,'' says Fenton.

But there are extremely rare instances of enforcing requirements retroactively. The financial and operational burden on owners and managers to do this would likely put many of them out of business. So when the building goes through refurbishment or expansion, a focus is put on ensuring its fire safety is improved.

''Many of the legacy stock of buildings were designed and built to codes that are not compatible with current requirements, which does not necessarily mean they are unsafe assuming the buildings are well maintained, so to try and retroactively enforce codes would require essentially knocking the building down and starting again,'' says Todd.

Since it's not feasible to demolish all the old buildings and start again, there is a need to do mandatory risk assessments on all buildings at least once.

Also, it's very critical to conduct regular maintenance of fire safety equipment and procedures, besides giving proper training on how to use them.

Source: Syed Ameen Kader, Special to Property Weekly,


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