Playing with fire

Gavin Davids hears from top FM and fire safety experts on the major issues facing the proper implementation of fire systems in the region

At the end of May 2012 the GCC was rocked by the news that 19 people, most of them young children, were killed by a fire that began in a nursery and swept through Doha’s Villaggio Mall. As accusations flew and the families’ grief grew, details slowly began to emerge about the cause of the tragedy.

Investigations into the incident by the Qatari civil defence forces found that the fire and life safety systems specified for the mall did not function as well as they could have; contributing significantly to the deaths of children, nursery staff and fire-fighters.

As a result, the tragedy has highlighted a number of issues, prompting mall owners and civil authorities across the Gulf to seriously re-evaluate the importance of the fire and life safety codes in operation.  In addition, authorities have begun to examine the guidelines in place at shopping malls and revamp them, so as to ensure the events in Doha are never repeated.

One such positive development is the beginning of dialogue between the government authorities and the facilities management companies maintaining malls and other public areas. This progress has been welcomed by some of the region’s leading fire and life safety experts.

“Developers need to talk to each other more. When I first started in this field around 10 years ago, developers really had a suspicion of local authority,” recalls Martin Gregory, managing director of Facilities Management Overseas.

“They wouldn’t talk to civil defence, police, and department of health or the municipality authorities, because they felt that if they spoke to them they would interfere,” he adds.

He says the need for a coherent fire code and the prevention of loss of life and property has encouraged both developers and civil defence authorities to be more receptive to each other’s input.

In order to further develop the progress made, Gregory has called for the UAE government to establish an inter-body lobby, so as to help change current practices.

Furthermore, he believes the UAE could help set the tone for the GCC when it comes to adopting fire and life safety codes that have been proven to work.

“There should be a lobby to the insurance industry, maybe through the government. It could be something RERA could take on and they should be pushing this and not accepting the current insurance methodologies,” he says.

“I think as well that more government agencies should be included in handovers. It would increase costs but at the end of the day it’s a tiny amount compared to the capital costs of an asset.”

Exemplifying London, Gregory explains that in the UK capital, inspections by the fire brigade and civil defence are required before a building can be operated.

“It doesn’t really happen here. You get inspection from DEWA but only so they know the metres are in. There should be an inspection at least by civil defence,” he asserts, adding: “The UAE is the most mature GCC market because it was built ahead of others. When I first arrived here, Dubai’s FM market was very immature, but wow there is a recognition that people need to engage in FM [to move forward].”

Afschin Soleimani, director of fire and life safety at Ramboll agrees and wants to take it one step further.

“With respect to the management of facilities, especially public facilities, there are always improvements that can be undertaken. Major public buildings should have dedicated fire safety wardens and staff that routinely inspect such facilities,” he says.

“With respect to compliance with fire system provisions, some of the key responsibilities of a fire safety warden should consist of regular visual inspections, ensuring that exit doors are not locked, and so on. It is not uncommon for exit stair doors of public buildings to be locked in order to maintain security of such buildings and prevent theft and break-ins,” Soleimani reveals, before confirming such measures are “strictly forbidden” and not the best way to maintain security.

However, Soleimani points out that the situation is steadily improving in the region, with clients becoming more and more likely to prioritise fire and life safety and detection systems.

“Furthermore, recent major fires in the Middle East have taught clients not to underestimate the disastrous effects of a fire, not just on lives but also on property, loss of business and interruptions to operations,” he adds.

Soleimani believes ont thing that will have a positive impact is the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, which was launched in July 2011. Often referred to as the Civil Defence Code, it was established to integrate internationally recognised fire and life safety codes and the needs of the local environment.

The code draws reference from well established international regulations, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards; British standards; and the Gulf Cooperation Council Code of Practice.

However, the predominant influence on the code is from the NFPA standards, which can clearly be seen in the references to NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, NFPA 5000: Building Construction and Safety Code and NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, Soleimani says.

Although this is a major step in the right direction, Garald Todd, head of fire and life safety at WSP Middle East, warns that the code is still very much in its infancy.

“This is a young code that’s attempting to address a lot of issues in the first place, while the more mature model codes seen in other countries have had time to mature and develop more organically. This is why the NFPA is a great base to start from as its got substantial amounts of history and experience captured in the requirements of the code,” he explains.

Looking beyond the implementation of the code, Todd admits that he has greater concerns about the actual installation of systems and their maintenance, based on contractor competency, commissioning of systems and maintenance.

In order to overcome this hindrance, Todd says that education is the only answer, especially in light of the shifting landscape in the wake of the market crash.

“We work very closely with civil defence and contractors in raising awareness of the need for inspections throughout the construction process and [we stress] on ensuring competent, qualified third parties are involved in the testing and commissioning to ensure the intent of the strategy and system installations are maintained,” he explains.

Whereas pre-crash, major issue hindering installation of tried and tested systems was a lack of time, post crash Todd says the issue is financial.

“Financial pressures in other countries have forced consultants from those countries into the GCC markets to look for work. These consultants often aren’t familiar with the codes and requirements adopted here, so we end up seeing designs that loosely fit their home countries, with some small tokens to local requirements thrown in,” he observes.

“These are usually poorly implemented due to a lack of understanding and experience behind the intent of these requirements,” Todd warns.

“The other issue is that developers and end clients are also facing extreme financial pressures. So the attractiveness of some of the smaller firms’ lower fees, based on the basic scope of services, is quite high. There’s a saying that’s appropriate in this circumstance, and that’s ‘what is cheap, will end up costing you,” he concludes.

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