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Sun 6 May 2007 12:00 AM

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Fire proof

The UAE's building boom has led to calls for increased fire safety measures. Melissa Hancock reports on the race to improve standards.

Anyone who visits Dubai today is bound to be awestruck by the sheer scale of the construction. With the emirate currently housing a third of the world's high-rise cranes, another 28,000 sq ft of office space is planned to be released in Dubai alone before the end of the year. A further 42 million sq ft is expected in 2008 - equivalent to the office space of downtown San Francisco.

In the midst of such a breathtaking property boom, the need for comprehensive fire-proofing to grow in line with the construction is even more pressing.

"With the ever increasing race toward fast building of complex facilities with higher and higher population densities and a growing tourist trade, it is an appropriate time for the Ministry of the Interior to get ‘tough' with offenders," observes Jerry Quayle, Director of Certification at UK-based IFC Certification, part of the IFC Group of companies including International Fire Consultants.

Quayle's theory is that as soon as you have an economy where there is more construction than control, accidents occur. It is a theory that has been proven in recent months with an increasing outbreak of fires, the majority of which have been ‘during construction work'.

Indeed, the number of fires that have broken out in 2007 alone is alarming. The most high-profile was the Fortune Tower fire in which four people lost their lives. The second broke out on the top three floors of a tower block under construction on Sheikh Zayed Road and the third occurred in the Al Quoz industrial area. This last fire made front-page news when it completely gutted a warehouse and damaged 13 others that were partly being used as labour accommodation. According to reports in the local press, the fire broke out because of the lack of safety measures, including the fact that the labourers used part of the premises as kitchens, oblivious to the potential hazards.

In response to the above incidents, the UAE's Civil Defence teams are working hard to improve on-site practices by stationing a fire officer on every building site. Ian Alston, IFC Group's Middle East manager, says that while such efforts are commendable, there are grounds for a radical review of the necessity for a bespoke local fire safety standard to be implemented for every building across the region. "But this is no easy job. To establish robust local standards will require a realistic timeframe, draw on international experience, expertise and a local will. Even when they are drafted, there will still need to be a robust mechanism to implement and enforce any new standards."

The most effective way to ensure that such standards are implemented is by having qualified fire safety engineers working in partnership with architects and contractors as part of a professional design team. "Typically an architect spends seven years of his formal training learning how to design buildings but only a few weeks of that is spent on learning the fire safety aspects. There is a huge gulf between their training and the liability for life safety that they assume on a project," says Alston.

"It is unfair for developers and regulators to expect them to fully understand fire safety design and the implications of specifying the wrong building materials or systems," he adds. Fire safety engineering, however, is a relatively new discipline - less than 20 years old - and consequently there is an extreme shortage of qualified and experienced fire consultants and fire safety engineers with the required breadth of knowledge. Quayle estimates that there are no more than 10-15 qualified and suitably experienced fire safety engineers in Dubai, a worrying number given the complexity of developments. He believes there should be "50 or 60 to cover the work that's going on." This has resulted in architects and inexperienced consultants making interpretations which they are not properly qualified to make. "Architects need to work in partnership with a fire consultancy firm to develop a fire strategy as an integral part of the design," asserts Quayle. Unfortunately quality fire safety design carries a cost, albeit a business is likely to save money in other areas, such as reduced errors and project delays and better value and fire performance for money, by using the correct specifications.

Equally worrying is Quayle's mention of a construction company who sub-contracted their fire engineering to a foreign business that never attended the site, had no knowledge of the local environment nor its building materials and processes.

Quayle adds: "You might know you've got a concrete-framed building but you also need to know what materials are being used to complement it. If the building is largely being furnished with non-combustible materials such as ceramic tiles then the strategy will differ significantly from that for a building that is to be fully-carpeted and covered with wood-panelling and incorporates considerable combustible insulation materials.''

Quayle also points out that some of the fire safety products used in the region are not designed to work in this climate. "Many fire extinguishers used in Dubai are designed to work on the EN (European Norm) test which is 21 degrees Celsius and yet the outside temperature here right now is 40+ degrees Celcius, and that's always been a problem. You can't necessarily ‘transplant' what is a robust system from one country to another because it might not be applicable to the local environment."

Given the rapid growth of construction in Dubai, one of the major hurdles for the authorities is a lack of resources to effectively ‘police' companies applying for trading licences used to sell fire safety equipment. Quayle observes: "Rogue traders can easily side-step the authorities. There are hundreds of companies and agencies selling fire products and it's hard to know which are selling bona fide products." Consequently, the Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) has improved its enforcement of regulations in the past year by insisting on increased evidence of some form of certification for all fire products.

The DCD has ordered IFC and other independently accredited certification companies to apply a label or stamp their products with a third party logo as verification that it is a proven product.

Such legislation, which until recently had only been applicable to fire doors, lends itself well to tightening up fire safety inspections as it provides the inspector with a system to eliminate unlicensed products. Such third party certification is essential industry sources suggest. Without it, the substitution of poor performing components is unlikely to go unnoticed and can prove fatal in the event of a fire.

As a result of the changing legislation, it has been said that the industry has seen an upturn in the number of companies looking for certification of their products. As one of the three certifying bodies in Dubai, IFC Certification has had first-hand experience of this.

"We're getting far more enquiries now for a full range of products, including fire doors, glazing systems, smoke curtains, pipe collars and wraps and seals to one-off bespoke items," explains Quayle.

In addition to procuring certified products, companies also need to use qualified design engineers to ensure the correct specification and installation of the product concerned.

Once the building is complete, a fire safety professional should ideally come in to test and commission the building in a proper manner. However, as Alston explains, the main problem is that "each building element or product is tested in isolation from one another and while they may test successfully as individual components, that does not tell you if they function as a ‘total system'."

Indeed, while the multiple fire and life safety systems are intended to be designed and interconnected, they are often designed and/or constructed by various different professionals and contractors. This inevitably results in systems being mismatched and tested as ‘components' rather than collectively.

According to IFC Group, experience with such commissioning tests has revealed failure rates of up to 25% in fire safety provisions and devices. In some cases, there was total failure due to the malfunction of key systems such as fire pumps and emergency power supplies.

Full operational tests are crucial. Not only do they reflect actual emergency conditions but also include a complete fire safety plan for emergencies and an ongoing maintenance programme to assure such systems continue to perform over the lifespan of the building.

To its full credit, the DCD is trying to introduce a system to address all stages of the fire design and protection process. "When I first came here four years ago, there simply wasn't the emphasis placed on life safety engineering and product control that there is today. There's been a massive change in attitude and the DCD is widely commended because they're the ones who have pushed to adopt international standards," says IFC's Quayle.

Quayle, however, also mentions, for example, that it takes several weeks to conduct a fire safety evaluation on a 100-storey building. The fact that there is currently insufficient qualified manpower available to carry out fire safety designs checks does not mean that corners should be cut in the design process in order for providers to ‘skip between projects' to earn vast sums for a lesser solution.

It is essential that sufficient time and money is invested in implementing fire safety design to the highest standards in all future construction projects.

Naturally, this also means rigorous monitoring of every step of the building's life - from achieving good quality control standards during the design, manufacturing and construction processes, through to the ongoing assessment of the completed building itself.

"Dubai is not alone," concludes Ian Alston, "All the Gulf and Middle East countries are facing similar problems. Given that they are so young, they have done extremely well in establishing and maintaining the standards so far. Today people look to Dubai for the lead and that puts considerable pressure on the Authorities."

Dubai's authorities are doing their best to tacke the threat. Brigadier Rashid Thani Al Matrooshi, Director of Dubai Civil Defence, said: "We are keeping pace with the rapid growth of high-rise towers and construction."

In the meantime, IFC and many others in the industry need to raise the awareness of the issues involved and any possible time-saving solutions that may be available to help raise the life safety standards of the existing and planned buildings.

In IFC's opinion, the best way to achieve this in the short-term is by enforcing regulations and demanding that all building design teams incorporate input and sign-off by a qualified fire safety engineer before they are presented to the government for final approval.

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