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The Burning Issue: Fire Safety in the UAE

Building fire safety in the UAE has become a hot topic in recent years following a number of high profile fires in tall buildings. A carelessly discarded cigarette sparked a blaze at the 34-storey Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT) in November 2012. In February 2015 a fire started in an apartment on the 50th floor of the 79-storey residential Marina Torch Tower and quickly spread upwards, destroying around 100 apartments and scorching large sections of the building’s cladding. And in July 2016 a fire broke out at Sulafa Tower, also in Dubai Marina, only yards away from the Torch Tower.

While each of these cases made headlines around the world, without doubt the most striking incident of all was the blaze that hit The Address Hotel Downtown Dubai on New Year’s Eve 2015, just metres from where a spectacular fire work display was set to take place at the Burj Khalifa at midnight. Live images of the incident were beamed around the world.

Unsurprisingly the incident sharpened the focus of the authorities on producing an updated version of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code. Though the new document was initially slated to be launched in April 2016, it was not until last month’s Intersec 2017 – a leading trade show for the security, safety, and fire protection sector – that the revised code was finally unveiled.

UAE Fire and Life Safety Code – An Evolution

The UAE issued the first edition of its Fire and Life Safety Code in 2011 and followed up with some amendments in 2012 that made it mandatory to use fire-rated facade cladding in buildings taller than 15 metres.

Prior to this it was common for developers to use non-fire rated Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) which consist of a plastic filler sandwiched between two sheets of aluminium. Experts have consistently pointed the finger at the flammability of the plastic component as the reason why in some cases fires have spread quickly across the outside of high rise buildings. It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of Dubai buildings constructed prior to 2013 may be fitted with non-fire rated ACPs and thus present a greater fire hazard than those built since.

The new code is the result of an extensive consultation by the authorities with a large number of key stakeholders within the construction sector over the past couple of years. In fact the process of revising the code began well before The Address fire sparked the attention of the world’s media. However that incident, which thankfully resulted in no fatalities, increased the urgency to not only issue a revised code but to produce a thoroughly researched document that could be clearly interpreted by the construction and real estate sectors.

The result of this lengthy consultation is a UAE Fire and Life Safety Code with 20 chapters, just one more than the previous edition though at 1,564 pages it will be more than twice the size of the older code which contained 707 pages. The main reason for this is that the number of illustrations and diagrams within the new code has risen to 784 from 296 previously.

And yet, at the time of going to press there was still a limited amount of information available about the new code as an English language version had not been made available. A spokesperson at the Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) booth at Intersec told Construction Business News it would take a further 10 days to two weeks before a copy would be available to download. In the meantime it’s been possible to glean a certain amount of detail from interviews and press events given by DCD officials as well as from industry experts.

At a press conference to mark the launch of Intersec 2017, Lt. Col. Ali Al Mutawa, Assistant General Manager for Smart Services at DCD confirmed that a new code was imminent.

“Due to increased construction and infrastructure activity in the UAE, we want to keep up to international safety standards, and we constantly strive to evolve and be better than yesterday,” said Al Mutawa. “Chapters that have been updated include those relating to fire doors; cladding in buildings; access for Civil Defence trucks to reduce incident response times; and educating consultants, contractors and end-users on the latest modifications.”

New regulations governing alarm systems in houses and tourist facilities in Dubai Marina will be released and there are also specific new requirements regarding the storage of flammable liquids and renewable energy.

But possibly the most significant development is that the new code does not force building owners to retrofit older buildings with newer, fire-rated facade cladding panels, despite persistent rumours to the contrary in the months leading up to the release of the new code. Instead, Lt. Col. Al Mutawa said the revised code would focus on the installation of cladding rather than the type of cladding itself.

“Most people think that these big fires are a result of the cladding used. But the cladding doesn’t cause the fire. We discovered that the main reason for the quick spread of the fire is the way the contractor has installed the cladding on the building. That’s why we and Dubai Municipality are introducing stricter rules on installation of cladding.”

What we know

Alexander Castellanos is Associate Director – Fire & Life Safety, Middle East at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, which advised the Civil Defence on multiple chapters of the 2017 code. He says the main focus of the new document is on clarifying a number of points and to make it easier for the industry to understand.

“There have been enhancements or clarifications for every chapter,” he says. “The big focus is on making it more straightforward to interpret the written text with supplemental figures. This was the original intent of the code but there were discrepancies between the figures and the text so what they’ve done is to make the images more representative of what the text states. That’s why there are so many more pages.”

So despite being far bigger in terms of pagination, the new code is not meant to be more complex, says Castellanos. In fact quite the opposite. It’s designed to be more prescriptive and easier to understand.

In addition there have been major updates to the smoke control chapter.

“The requirements for smoke control are actually very different for certain occupancies but it’s a clarification of what the intent was originally and it’s part of the lessons learned from recent fires,” says Castellanos.

The new code will also have a major focus on material certification to make sure that any building materials with a fire performance are made to the same specifications and meet the same safety standards, whether they are produced in Europe, the Middle East or China.

“Materials need to be certified in accordance with an international standard and in addition they need to be certified locally,” says Castellanos. “And that’s what’s previously been ignored so there’s more focus on that now and hopefully it will have more enforcement as we go forward.”

Andy Dean, Head of Facades, Middle East at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, is not surprised that the new code does not require retrofitting of older buildings.

“Renovating an existing building to the extent that you replace the cladding is a huge undertaking,” he says. “It means having everybody move out of the building, stripping it down and then getting people to move back in again. If you take the cladding off you open the building up to the environment. That’s a complete building change.”

However, while owners of older buildings will not automatically be required to upgrade these buildings to comply with the new regulations, if and when they do decide to renovate they will then need to be compliant with the new code. This has led to a situation where owners could be discouraged from making building improvements due to the cost of having to carry out an extensive renovation.

“I would say that it’s incredibly important that people do look at their existing buildings and review the risks that they have,” Dean says. “Let’s say you have a 15-year-old building and you decide that you want to make it safer. Not necessarily right up to code but to make it safer. Isn’t that a good thing?

“Everyone would agree that it is. But there are sticking points to making that happen. For example, if you start changing a building here you are affectively making a modification and you need authority approval to do that. If you’re going to start working on a building it needs to be fully code compliant so it’s potentially putting a barrier in front of developers to improve their buildings.”

Dean says the authorities now need to consider putting a mechanism in place that would allow for the existing building stock to be upgraded without requiring that owners go to the huge expense of a full refit.

“At the moment there’s isn’t that ability to go half way,” he says. “And I think we need to find a way, with the help of the authorities, to improve existing buildings without having to completely change them to meet new code compliance. That’s something that has to happen as a next step.”

It will take a little time for the industry to digest the new fire and life safety code and to assess the implications as a whole for various stakeholders. What is clear is that the authorities have taken the time needed to carry out a wide ranging review that has resulted in a document that takes full account of the views of the industry while improving safety for residents. And though cladding panels have been the subject of much media scrutiny, the new code goes far beyond this one issue to address all relevant areas of safety.

“The code has been enhanced based on lessons learned, not necessarily to make it more complex but to clarify ambiguities in the previous code and to really address the growth of especially high rise buildings,” says Castellanos.

“And part of addressing that is that materials specification and certification is fundamental. That applies to every material that has a fire performance, whether internal, external, structural, interior finish, everything. It’s a comprehensive solution, not just one thing you need to deal with.”

Timeline of high profile building fires in the UAE

November 2012 – Tamweel Tower, JLT

February 2015 – Torch Tower, Dubai Marina

December 2015 – Address Hotel, Downtown Dubai

July 2016 – Sulafa Tower, Dubai Marina

December 2016 – Oceana Residence, Palm Jumeirah

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