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While the epic fire that gutted The Address Downtown hotel on New Year's Eve showed Dubai's strong capabilities to handle such emergencies, the incident also highlights a nagging concern in the emirate's property sector: fire safety. Cognizant of the serious ramifications of the matter, the UAE is set to release an upgraded version of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code this month. Major-General Rashid Al Matroushi, Director of Dubai Civil Defence, said at last week's sixth edition of the annual Fire Safety Technology Forum that last-minute provisions of the code are being ironed out.
Maj-Gen Al Matroushi told forum delegates that substandard materials used by contractors are a leading cause of fire risk. ''It is the responsibility of contractors to install high-quality materials that are in line with the [fire safety] code,'' he said. ''The existing code already has all the specifications, however, the amendments will make them stricter.''
Faizal E. Kottikollon, Founder and Chairman of KEF Holding, agrees that it is not the standards or inspections that are the fundamental problem, but the selection and specification of materials. He says most buildings, particularly hotels, are up to international standards, with two-hour fire rating between compartmentation zones, either between adjacent zones or floor levels.
''The public-access buildings also have fire alarms that adhere to international codes and have been approved by the Dubai Civil Defence and Dubai Municipality,'' he says.
In many instances, accidental human intervention generally triggers a blaze, says Kottikollon. ''In some cases, more adherence to building management rules and guidelines is required to avoid fires,'' he says. ''Education and awareness on fire safety could contribute to improving the status quo and ensuring that less fire-related accidents take place.''
Ahmed Al Khatib, Executive Director of Naffco, says most buildings adopt the latest standards and equipment in fire safety, including fire extinguishers, fire alarms and sprinkler systems.
''The UAE 505 Law from 2012 requires that a percentage of the employees should be trained in basic fire extinguisher [usage] and techniques,'' says Al Khatib. ''Proper training for employees in the field is also implemented. The UAE also has assigned inspectors to conduct fire-prevention inspection of all facilities, including the hotels.''
The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code includes provisions for passageways for fire trucks. Many buildings built or approved before the first UAE Fire and Life Safety Code was released in 2006 ''followed the US National Fire Protection Association and the European fire code, as there was no UAE code. Those codes did not have a provision about having passageways around the building for fire vehicles,'' according to Maj-Gen Al Matroushi.
Hotels and other buildings are also mandated by law to have firefighting equipment and safety measures in place, including smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, fire alarm management monitoring systems, easily accessible fire exits, system exhaust draft vents, smoke dampers (within ventilation systems) and building safe zones that have higher fire rating and are equipped with life-support systems.
''The principal design criteria in most cases must be to delay the fire propagation to allow the safe evacuation of the occupants of a building,'' says Kottikollon. ''The building's structural elements must also be able to withstand the fire for a certified time to facilitate the same criteria. Most materials used are somewhat flammable, but each has varying degrees of resistance. Hence, a building must be designed using a range of different materials to ensure the structure can withstand [the dam age], even if certain elements catch fire.''
Kottikollon points out there is no foolproof fire system for high-rise towers, ''not because the current systems in place are inferior, but because there is no perfect way to ensure that occupants, including guests and staff, have the required knowledge of fire prevention systems''. He says fire exits and other fire systems must therefore be clearly marked and easily accessible, while fire alarms and monitoring systems must go through routine checks and servicing.
The pace and volume of new projects in the previous years may have also contributed to the problem. ''Sometimes testing laboratories are overwhelmed and substandard materials may be used in construction,'' says Al Khatib. ''The builders or contractors sometimes may use shortcuts to maximise profits, compromising the safety of the people.''
This was a sentiment shared by Maj-Gen Al Matroushi, who also pointed to shoddy construction practices as a major fire risk. He said some contractors would comply with regulations by using fire-retardant materials in some areas, but use unapproved materials in less conspicuous areas such as hinges, doorknobs and frames.
''This is how they fool the system,'' he said in a Gulf News report. ''We cannot send a Civil Defence official to watch every single step of the construction process. However, Dubai Civil Defence and Dubai Municipality do conduct periodic onsite inspections as required.''
Al Khatib believes the Dubai Civil Defence can focus more on addressing firesafety issues as construction activity slows down.
While a new fire code strengthens enforcement of fire regulations, Craig Ross, Head of Project and Building Consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell, says the regulations will only cover new buildings. Older properties will continue to potentially pose risks because of the difficulty and huge cost involved in meeting the new fire standards.
Retrofitting can be a good solution in addressing this issue. ''An example could be retrofitting improved fire detection systems, adding noncombustible fire barriers to voids, or fitting panic bars to doors with manual locks,'' says Ross. ''These will become known during the fire risk assessment, which will outline the measures that could be taken [based on] significance and practicality. It's important to take this into account, as well as internal refurbishments, during improvements that will undoubtedly take place in the lead-up to the World Expo 2020.''
Eliminating high-rise hazards - Faizal E. Kottikollon, Founder and Chairman of KEF Holdings, talks about safety concerns in UAE buildings
- How would you assess the quality of fire protection and safety in the UAE?
Most UAE buildings are up to international standards. In some cases, more adherence to building management rules and guidelines is required to avoid fires.
- What are the design and construction pitfalls that need to be addressed?
Many factors have to come together to ensure the safe operation of a building, but a minor failure in detection or fire prevention can result in an incident. We recommend our clients use precast graphic concrete instead of aluminium cladding to ensure the sustainability of buildings and avoid loss of property due to firerelated incidents. The precast frame package typically includes columns, beams, floors, internal wall panels, stairs, landings, façade panels and balconies — all of which have inbuilt fire protection and are extremely durable.
- What steps can building owners take to enhance their safety measures?
It is essential that materials used are specific to the design and structure of the building in question, and are not materials used to cut costs at the time of construction.
- Is retrofitting a good solution?
Experts recommend that buildings that do not meet certain criteria should be subject to fines and must undergo rectification works to improve safety standards. I assume this work is already being carried out by relevant authorities.
Source: Hina Navin, Special to Property Weekly