Debate flares up on UAE towers fire safety systems

Debate flares up on UAE towers fire safety systems
A fire sweeps through Al Shamsi building on Salahuddin Road in Deira in November last year. - KT file

Dubai - Experts underline need for fire drills and safety mechanisms.

By Deepthi Nair

Published: Wed 6 Jan 2016, 6:26 PM

Last updated: Thu 7 Jan 2016, 9:41 AM

A barbecue in a balcony, a cigarette butt, an unchecked candle or short circuit are all it takes to spark a fire which can ravage a building and leave occupants stripped of all their belongings. Recent fires in Al Shamsi building in Deira, The Torch in Dubai Marina, Regal Tower in Business Bay and other buildings in Sharjah demonstrate the need for quality fire audits in the UAE's skyscrapers.
Although the cause of blazes is yet to be ascertained in the recent infernos, prevention is always better than cure. Since the new building codes in Dubai were implemented in early 2013, there have been claims that all towers built during the construction boom and old builds have non-fire rated cladding in place. Add to this infrequent fire safety inspections and faulty fire safety features, and it presents a recipe for disaster.
"The biggest mistake by building managers in terms of fire safety is not having a proper fire safety audit undertaken when they take control of a building, or updating an existing one periodically. This is not always their fault, as an owners association [OA] may resist costs of technical reports being taken from their coffers, favouring the funds to be spent on other items, especially if there is already a financial stress on the building. However, owners are starting to understand the potential risks to lives and their property investment," says Craig Ross, head of project and building consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell.
According to Kingfield Owner Association Management Services, the building management company for The Torch: "As a result of having had a sufficient emergency preparedness plan in place along with a well-trained team, it was possible to restore normal operations within days after the fire incident in The Torch."
"Fire safety is one of our highest priorities. We continue to invest a lot of time and research into improving fire safety in projects that we manage. Emergency preparedness plans are reviewed periodically and drills are carried out on a regular basis," said Anel-Carline Beukes, head of compliance and communications at Kingfield.
In working condition
It's also your duty as a resident to be aware of fire safety features in your building and to ensure that these are in working condition. Typical installations include fire extinguishers, alarms, sprinklers and an easily accessible stairwell. These are, more often than not, taken for granted. Building staff should be aware of evacuation strategies in case of a contingency.
"Improper fire safety systems can constitute a real risk to the lives of occupants and also to the Dubai Civil Defence [DCD]. During our building surveys, we have come across instances, including blocked fire doors and non-compliant fire escape routes, which in the panic and confusion caused during an evacuation could result in people being trapped within an escape route. With possibly hundreds of people trying to push down some escape stairs at speed, this is extremely dangerous. Hazards like inoperable escape routes will jeopardise rescue operations and slow down the DCD's work," informed Ross.
The manner in which the Address hotel inferno was controlled without any fatalities is proof of a sound fire and building safety strategy.
"It's hard to comment on the Address hotels' fire safety procedures without having assessed the building, but it's likely that a quality establishment and operator would have a reasonable standard of understanding and procedure in place. The fact that everyone was evacuated in 20 minutes, and there have been no reported fatalities shows there must have been a fire escape strategy in place, which was implemented by staff members on the evening," added Ross.
It is not fair to paint all old buildings in Dubai with the same brush - some may pose a higher fire risk since they may not comply with modern fire codes.
Cladding, the aluminium panels that are used on building facades for insulation, has emerged a primary culprit in the commentary surrounding fire in Dubai skyscrapers.
Older properties typically have cladding that does not meet the current standards in terms of combustibility. These towers can be retrofitted with modern, fire-resistant cladding.
"What also needs to be addressed is people's attitudes to fire safety, making them aware of the potential risks to their buildings, and ensure that a suitable fire plan is in place. Only a holistic approach which considers both active and passive fire safety measures will provide the level of understanding required to do so," Ross suggested.
Having appropriate insurance covers is also crucial in the aftermath of a disaster. "Kingfield ensures that insurance policies should not only be limited to building repairs but should also cover residents' requirements such as emergency accommodation and rental loss," added Beukes.

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