Robust Strategy: Sam Alcock, Dubai Director of Tenable Fire Engineering Consultancy
Sam Alcock, Dubai Director of Tenable Fire Engineering Consultancy, discusses how fire and life safety should remain a priority during every phase of a building’s life cycle
Over the past decade, we have seen significant regional developments in fire and life safety, with countries increasingly benchmarking against international standards and codes. The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, in particular, is detailed and clearly defined with very little scope for interpretation to ensure the preservation of life and asset protection remain priorities. Similarly, the Saudi Arabia Building Code 2018 also recognises fire and life safety as a fundamental necessity throughout a project’s life cycle. Codes such as these guide developers during decisions that impact not only the project’s budget, but also the longevity and safety of a project now and in the future. While it could be considered an unnecessary expense to engage with a qualified fire engineer from the onset of a project, failure to do so can ultimately be more expensive down the line.
Having a robust fire and life safety code allows us to work with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive fire and life safety strategy, necessary for ensuring code compliance and helping stakeholders achieve desired safety standards. This fire and life safety strategy also acts as a guide for contractors during the construction phase to assure stakeholders that works are being carried out in line with the building’s design intent. Despite the criticality of a fire and life safety strategy to the longterm success of a project, stakeholders oftentimes overlook the need to engage with a fire consultant during the initial design stage of a project, potentially resulting in costly rectifications during construction. For example, not having a sufficient number of stairwells as specified in the code can have a huge impact on whether a project is awarded necessary approvals. If this is not identified during the design phase, adding an additional stairwell to a completed building is often not possible or practical, and finding an alternative solution can be costly and time-consuming.
To those developing a fire a life safety strategy, the UAE Code offers sector-specific guidance to ensure the code requirements, such as means of egress, smoke control and fire protection, align with the purpose of the building. For residential projects, as the residents are aware of their surroundings, the sleeping risks we identify will differ from that of a hotel, where guests are in a new environment and are unaware of their surroundings should they need to evacuate in the event of a fire. For low rise, residential buildings under a height of 15 metres, a single stairwell is sufficient as the means of egress. In contrast, hotels, regardless of the height of the building, require a minimum of two stairwells to ensure compliance. For education projects, such as schools and universities, there are no sleeping risks, but the occupants may be children, so the risks posed are higher, and the means of egress and travel distance in the event of a fire must be shorter than that of an office or a residential apartment building.
Sector-specific planning also applies to healthcare projects, such as clinics and hospitals, as patient capability and active surgeries must be taken into consideration, along with the standard sleeping risks, non-sleeping risks and lack of familiar surroundings. For commercial projects, such as shopping malls with a high daily visitor footfall, some occupants may be aware of their surroundings whereas others may not be, further increasing the risk in the event of a fire. In this instance, increased smoke control is required to permit extended travel distances.
A building’s fire and life safety strategy goes beyond the construction phase and continues into the operational phase. Therefore, it is important to ensure fire and life safety is included within the facilities management (FM) of the building’s upkeep. Stakeholders must ensure they appoint an FM provider that understands and respects the importance of fire and life safety and ensures the fire safety systems are tested thoroughly and in adherance to the code. For example, it is mandatory for stair pressurisation to be tested twice a year, fire alarms to be tested four times a year and for all ducts and dampeners to be kept clean and working sufficiently. However, the responsibility of fire and life safety does not stop with the FM provider. Chapter 18 of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice defines stakeholder responsibilities, stating that FM responsibility also lies with building owners, tenants and residents.
Despite regional authorities outlining the need for an approved fire engineer to verify designs and final construction prior to final government approvals, this is one area of country codes that we see misinterpreted the most. As pressures to reduce costs and deliver projects in ever tighter timeframes increase, some succumb to the temptation of not engaging with a qualified, approved fire consulting professional until a problem arises. Oftentimes, the need for rectifications not only causes delays but also results in unforeseen costs, making consulting a fire engineer at the beginning of a project a more economical and safer course of action.