Blaze has sparked renewed debate over fire safety and what was learnt from previous cases
Fire safety was the subject of heated debate in Dubai in February, when a massive blaze engulfed the Torch Tower. Local and international media outlets relentlessly reported on the event, while hotels and residents extended a helping hand to those affected.
The authorities have yet to determine the cause of the fire, says Abu Nasser, head of Information at Dubai Civil Defence. “The fire was dealt with successfully and we were able to put down the fire very quickly. The shortest time to suppress a fire internationally is seven to eight hours. However, our team was able to suppress the fire in two hours only. The civil defence team did its job, and now the case is handed over to the Dubai Police forensic labs for further investigation.”
Meanwhile, Oman Insurance, the insurer for the building, mobilised a team to coordinate support for the victims, offering seven days of accommodation to those whose apartments were inaccessible. A loss adjuster was also assigned for further investigation, the firm said in a statement.
Although the Torch incident saw no severe casualties, occupants of a car repair and tyre shop in Abu Dhabi’s Mussafah area weren’t as lucky. Ten workers were killed in a blaze that ravaged the facility in February, while eight others sustained injuries of varying severity.
This prompts the question of whether fire safety is taken seriously enough in the UAE. Does it take loss of life or property to force stakeholders to pay attention? Or is there a sense of complacency among residents in the country, many of whom live in modern buildings presumably equipped to handle fires?
“There’s always a need for additional education and awareness from all stakeholders of their role in fire safety in a building,” says Garald Todd, head of fire and life safety – Middle East at consultancy firm WSP. “From a government point of view, there’s a really strong focus from the top all the way down of the importance of fire safety. They’re very proactive in it. I think the challenge that we face out here is the pace of progress and the number of stakeholders involved that don’t necessarily understand their role in fire safety.”
When asked if the Dubai Marina in particular presents any unique challenges with regard to fire safety, Todd says he doesn’t think so, apart from the high population density of the area. “The challenge that you see in the Marina area is that it’s just a densely populated area in terms of high-rises. But these buildings are built with high-rise provisions, so once you’d see 23 metres in height, you have to put in a number of protective features inside the building that otherwise you might not have to put in. So there isn’t anything that makes a high-rise building less safe than a low-rise building.
“There aren’t very many old buildings down there [in the Marina], so pretty much every building that I can think of will have many of these protective features in. So I don’t think there’s anything of paramount concern.”
While the buildings may not be unsafe in that sense, Todd notes that in cases like the Torch, the façade could be to blame. He points out similarities to the fire that gutted the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers back in 2012.
“The problem that we’ve seen with Tamweel and this building is more related to façade materials and the appropriateness of the façade materials. It’s quite remarkable because the photographs [of the scene] are quite dramatic. And it looks really very significant, but the reality of it was it’s not that significant of a fire in terms of threat to human life, because it was the exterior of the building that was on fire. But the core, which is where people escaped from, was never compromised. So that’s why we see no deaths, no major injuries in Tamweel and now, of course, the Torch.”
Todd admits that he can’t authoritatively determine the cause of the fire just yet. “Obviously, I haven’t seen any of the investigation reports for the Torch so it’s purely conjecture on that. But the way the fire behaved, the discussions in the media about the fire and just the images that we’ve seen, we can tell that it was the façade that was a primary fuel source.”
In response to media enquiries about building materials used, Kingfield Owner Association Management Services, the building management company for the Torch, is quick to deny the use of faulty materials.
“All the elevation materials used for the construction of the Torch were approved by the authorities, and the tower was built in complete compliance with relevant building codes. Approvals from relevant authorities were obtained prior to the completion certificate being issued by the authorities,” the firm says.
Media reports of the event suggest the blaze was fanned by a sandstorm. Todd, however, insists that environmental factors need to be accounted for in the design process itself.
“When we design, for example, pressurisation systems for stairs to make sure the stairs remain relatively free from smoke, we have to take into account in that design the extreme temperatures and wind effect on the building,” he says, adding that “conditions outside the building are just as important as what’s going on inside the building. And that all has to be taken into account. And that’s why when you work in a region you really have to understand, get all the data that is relevant for your worst possible scenario.”
Weather conditions aside, another worrying fact that emerged was that residents of the building were initially not sure the fire alarm was real, on account of several false alarms and drills in the tower previously.
“Security guards knocked on our doors several times after the alarms started ringing, so we got dressed to leave,” says Ahmad Al Atawi, an Egyptian resident quoted in Gulf News. “We usually have these false alarms, so when I heard this one, I thought I’d just carry on sleeping because it was probably nothing.”
When asked if false alarms are a real problem in fire safety, Todd’s answer is clear as day. “Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. That is one of the biggest problems facing the fire safety industry today,” he insists.
“A lot of the times people don’t really understand the negative impact of these false alarms. It’s to the point where I, as a fire safety professional, when I [used to] hear a fire alarm in my old building, because it happened so often, I would still investigate to see if there’s any secondary or tertiary cues that would indicate that something is going on. But even then I would be dubious of it.”
So how is this solved? Todd emphasises the role of all stakeholders in a building in ensuring fire safety: contractors, consultants, fire engineers, facilities managers and tenants. “People have to be involved in this. If you’re a facilities manager in a building that has constant fire alarm issues, this is an important issue that needs to be sorted out with all haste.”
“If facilities management and if the alarm contractors and all these stakeholders that are responsible for the system functioning properly aren’t able to do it out of their own professionalism and own ability, then I think it’s time for enforcement to come in and start having some accountability for these systems.”
He also notes the crucial role of those who design and build a development. “Contractors are hugely important to make sure they’re using the right materials, make sure they’re installing it right, and make sure that it gets commissioned and serviced right. And all that falls down if it was designed wrong. So the contractor could install it after it was designed, but the design could be wrong. So every element needs to be right.”
The only way to prevent disasters like this, he reiterates, is for everyone to take a proactive approach to safety.
“It’s important for all the people involved in this to know that they too have a role in fire safety in their building. That it’s not just the fire engineers and it’s not just the civil defence. Everybody does,” he reiterates.