A Need for Alarm

Big Project ME asks what can be done to ensure that lives are saved through increased fire safety

There are four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each has massive potential to deliver the full fury of nature in the constant fight between the natural and developed world. Any element can cause millions of dollars of damage and loss of life.

Their effect is regional in some cases. The UAE is lucky enough not to suffer from earthquakes and land based disasters or faults, such as California does.

Obviously in a desert environment water is not a massive problem, the chances of a tsunami in the Arabian Gulf remain small. We do not suffer from typhoons or hurricanes and the consequential loss of life and property.

Of all the elements the one which is most international and thus arguably the scariest is fire. This does affect Dubai.

Certainly it is scary that in the recent Tamweel Tower an entire tower block can be reduced to scrap by a carelessly thrown cigarette end.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as it were. According to the figures revealed by civil defence authorities, 3,359 fire incidents were reported in the UAE in the first six months of 2012 alone. The majority of these were in residential buildings and high-rises.

The UAE has responded responsibly and quickly. There is a new building code in Abu Dhabi and special attention has been given to a flammable cladding which may have been used in up to 500 other high rise buildings in Dubai.

Major Jamal Ahmed Ibrahim is Director of Preventive Safety at the Ministry of Interior. At the recent Intersec Conference he was very positive: “The UAE is now united in its response. Engineers from every emirate meet to ensure standards are high and unified.”

There is developing adherence to world safety codes, as explained by Aaron F. Vanney, of Rolf Jensen & Associates. His talk was called ‘The New Era of Developing Fire Strategies in the UAE.’

Many of the codes adopted by the UAE are taken from the UK and the USA. But, and this is a crucial point, Dubai is stretching the envelope of buildings in terms of size. We are spaceonauts, constantly designing bigger open spaces and atria for the public to inhabit.

Michael Kelly is Director of Fire Safety Engineering for Emaar Malls. He is a distinguished fire officer and an experienced safety consultant. As he rolls over to sleep at night he is responsible for the safety of around 100,000 people walking through the Dubai Mall on a good day, and all of the inhabitants and staff of the Burj Khalifa. In essence two of his major responsibilities are the tallest building in the world and the largest mall in the world.

He suffers none of the problems he would face in Europe except one. His budgets and resources are generous. His team is motivated and highly skilled. He has some of the most advanced fire planning in the world. Then he hands over the mall to a mall manager. To make Mr Kelly’s world perfect though, he would like the mall managers to be more aware of how fire systems work. To be very clear though, this is not an EMAAR problem: “This is a worldwide problem. I bet if you go to most malls worldide the managers will not have read the Fire Procedures.”

He thinks it’s a problem of education: “If we say only put one car in an atrium it’s for a reason. If we say there is a 10kW limit and the manager puts in a 20kW load by having two cars, he is trying to make the systems do more than they were designed to. We need to explain why this limit exists.” The Kw rating is the amount of heat a car will produce if it catches fire. Another journalist succinctly explains the problem: ‘A car is a bomb.’

There are more mundane problems. Some managers turn off the sprinkler systems if they are painting a vacant unit: “Sprinkler systems should only be turned off when there is no chance of occupancy by humans. At night, for example.”

It is remarkable that a manager of a mall or a large space is not directly responsible for the safety of his shoppers. So there is a question of culpability.

The Airbus A380 can carry a few hundred passengers. A passenger liner could conceivably have a thousand souls aboard it. The Mall of the World, the proposed mall in MBR City could have a footfall of 200,000 people a day, on a busy holiday period.

There is currently no compulsory course for mall managers to deal with fire systems. But there is a strong argument that managers should be licenced and therefore directly culpable. Major Jamal Ahmed Ibrahim points out that the owners of the building take responsibility once the completion certificate has been signed. But, and this is crucial, no one person takes responsibility.

Michael Kelly is convinced that there is no space in the world, nor can there ever be, that is too big to be safe from fire: “It’s a case of planning. If there is a fire and there is smoke, that’s a good thing. It means the smoke systems are controlling the environment. If there is a fire in a large mall it only affects a tiny part of the mall. People can be shopping at the other end of the mall and not be affected.”

“Buildings are safe. It’s people who are dangerous. If buildings were empty they would never catch fire.” But Kelly thinks that the major enemy of safety is complacency: “People forget the risk and it takes a fire to remind them of the potential danger.”

So at this point the forum had discussed the building and compliance of buildings. We had heard about code compliance and its application to ultra large spaces and ultra-high buildings.

Tony McGuirk is the ex-chief fire officer of Merseyside. He is an advocate of early planning of fire risks. This is known as risk mapping and he demonstrated its long term effectiveness by showing a risk map of ancient Rome. It identified the Coliseum and the Chariot Racing track as potentially dangerous, and it charted water sources and fast routes access to the danger point. Dubai does not fully have this facility.

The firefighters of Rome had even more authority than our own ministries. Under Roman law each house was required to keep a bucket of sand by any open fires and a bucket of water available to fight house fires.

The firemen, or Vigiles carried out house to house inspections to ensure compliance. If they found a householder who did not comply, they dragged them into the street and flogged them to death as a warning to their neighbours.

McGuirk advocates the development of these risk maps. His own fire brigade visited over half a million homes to advise on fire alarms and fire safety. From these visits they built up a profile of potentially high risk homes, and marked them as priorities.

He does stress, though, that information on these maps need to be immediately available to the men on the ground. The aim of all firemen in domestic fires is to be fighting the fire in eight minutes, the average time it takes for a fire to break out of the room it started in.

“The sad fact though is that most people who die in fires are already dead before the fire fighters are called,” he points out.

Many of the things that save our life we don’t see. Kelly points out that many stairwells are pressurised. This means that any smoke trying to enter the stairwell is forced back out.

Another consideration in the fire safety scenario is that different buildings have different values, for various social reasons. Obviously buildings that contain people are the most important, as saving life is paramount in all firefighting, saving property should always be secondary.

McGuirk illustrates the point by showing an image of the waterfront in Merseyside, England. He points to some buildings from the 1960’s: “These are concrete boxes. If they burn down we can build some more.” He points to the Liver building: “This building is iconic. It is the heart and soul of the city. Thousands of immigrants have sailed from this building. The Titanic sailed from here. We could never lose this it.”

If you think about it for a second you will mentally compile a list of iconic buildings in Dubai. The Burj Al Arab, the Burj Khalifa and many others have woven themselves into the fabric of our conscious.

The important point is that the way that buildings are designed. Each construction complies to fire safety codes and every fire extinguisher is strategically placed.

Engineers design safety systems and managers must comply more closely to understand and implement fire safety rules. Because there will always be a stupid man with a cigarette.


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