Need to reduce the margin of error on fire breakouts

fire breakoutsThe Address Downtown caught on fire on New Year's Eve l Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News


If you live in Dubai, hearing about a high-rise building on fire will unfortunately not be new to you.

The Tamweel Tower building in JLT still bears the scars of the 2012 fire which tore up the side of the building. And only now are remedial works starting after a lengthy insurance issue.

In 2015 alone we were privy to scenes from the Torch Tower fire in February and more recently the Al Shamsi Building fire in November, both of which required the evacuation of hundreds of residents and resulted in disastrous loss of property and belongings.

The Address Downtown caught fire on New Year’s Eve, quickly culminating in a raging inferno which lit up the night sky.

We are fortunate that we have a very efficient fire department in Dubai Civil Defence, who are well trained to tackle these towering infernos. All credit to the speed of their actions in Downtown considering the confined working area and New Year’s traffic.

But tackling the problem of these fires goes beyond active and efficient firefighting, and we must consider the passive measures of design and construction in the thousands of existing buildings in the region.

Every building has its own unique risks in terms of occupancy, fire load and escape strategy. The older a building is, the more likely it is not to comply with modern fire codes and hence the more risks there are likely to be.

Older properties are likely to be externally finished with cladding that does not meet current standards in terms of combustibility, thus presenting a greater risk should the cladding ignite. The best way to expose these risks and how to mitigate them is to have a fire safety audit undertaken, and it is important to update this periodically to catch changes within the property and its operation.

A fire safety audit will involve having a surveyor assess the property in what is typically a three-stage approach. Firstly, a study of the relevant information including the as-built drawings, any existing fire plans or safety registers and records of all fire detection and suppression systems would be carried out to expose any potential issues before visiting the site.

The surveyor would then carry out a thorough site inspection, assessing all areas of the building against current regulations and best practice, as well as discussing the current systems and procedures with the building manager and the DCD-approved contractor responsible for the fire safety systems.

Finally, a fire safety audit report would be drafted, including comments on any risks and shortcomings discovered, and advise on how the building manager can best implement their fire safety plan. It’s likely that a quality establishment such as The Address Downtown would have had a fire safety audit carried out and the fact that every person was evacuated in 20 minutes shows there was an effective fire safety strategy in place, which was well implemented by staff members on New Year’s Eve.

As chartered building surveyors, part of our remit is to assess compliance with building and fire Regulations and to advise on how to make their buildings safer. As a result, part of the building surveying bachelor’s degree is dedicated to building design and fire engineering, with an emphasis on assessing buildings in comparison to modern fire regulations which can be traced all the way back to the Great Fire of London in 1666.

In this region, we often come across many rectifiable life threatening issues, including non-complaint fire escape routes and insufficient ratings to fire doors, all of which would be exposed during a thorough fire safety audit. Ultimately, our task is to raise an overall awareness of fire risks, so that occupants and operators can plan for them accordingly.

Otherwise, it is simply a matter of time until we read about the next building fire.

Source: Craig Ross, Special to gulfnews.comGN

The writer is Head of Project and Building Consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell


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