Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
March 30, 2016

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Latest Skyscraper Fire Once Again Exposes Fire Protection Flaws in UAE

Another blaze has destroyed a high-rise building in the UAE – the third such fire in a year.

Admittedly most buildings in Dubai and some other emirates are high-rise structures, so whatever fires they do have are highly likely to be in skyscrapers. Nevertheless, the speed at which they take hold – and this one quickly spread to an adjacent block – is a damning indictment on the widespread use in the region of highly flammable exterior cladding.

The latest fire, which struck a residential tower in the Ajman emirate, north of Dubai, on Monday 28 March, comes only three months after a New Year’s Eve blaze at the 63-storey Address Hotel in Dubai (which BB7’s head of fire engineering James Lane analysed for IFSEC Global).

A preliminary on-site inspection of the Dubai tower revealed that exterior cladding did not meet safety standards. Investigators identified a short circuit in a spotlight as the source of the fire.   In February 2015, Dubai’s ‘Torch’ – one of the tallest residential towers in the world – was also badly damaged by a fire. Well out of reach of conventional firefighting equipment, the region’s skyscrapers rely heavily on advanced sprinkler systems and other fire retardants.

Combustible aluminium composite panel cladding

But many tall buildings throughout the UAE use a combustible aluminium composite panel cladding, including the Tamweel Tower that went up in flames in 2012. Lt Col Jamal Ahmed Ibrahim, director of the preventive safety department for Dubai Civil Defence, said his team had insisted on the replacement of cladding from all four sides of the Tamweel Tower, instead of only the fire-damaged section. He also insisted that estimates that between 65% and 70% of UAE buildings had some form of aluminium panels surrounding a thermoplastic core were wide of the mark; only 10% to 20% were covered with such cladding, he insisted. The aluminium composite cladding is also often allied with highly flammable cores and an inadequate number of fire breaks. 

 

“The Ajman blaze once again raises questions relating to the design, specification and installation of appropriate materials and systems that are intended to ensure that a building remains fit for purpose in the event of a fire,” says Association for Specialist Fire Protection CEO Wilf Butcher.

“It further serves to highlight the need to ensure that fire and smoke spread is not only contained within the compartment of origin and that means of escape are protected, but also that it is not allowed to spread between buildings or up the outside of a building either externally or within voids within the façade.

“This fire, coupled with other recent high profile façade fires, such as the Address Downtown fire in Dubai, serve to illustrate the need for much a greater understanding of the fire behaviour of modern designs of buildings and the materials used in them. The increasing frequency of such fires and their nature points to deficiencies in design and specification.”

The UAE authorities sought to phase out non-fire-rated cladding four years ago with the introduction of the 2012 Fire and Life Safety code. The next regulatory attempt to remedy the situation, the UAE’s new fire code, was scheduled to come out next month but has been delayed for one month to allow for additional revisions.

Prosecution

The new code is expected to stipulate a number of tests that must be conducted on new buildings and a list of approved construction materials. Any suppliers of non-approved materials will for the first time face prosecution under the code.

Owners will also be required to renew no-objection certificates (NOCs) annually, rather than just once upon initial completion of the building, as is the case now.

Existing buildings will also be surveyed, both on their interior and exterior, according to Lt Col Ibrahim.

In what may prove to be an expensive undertaking, owners and developers will be given a specific time period to carry out recommended alterations, ranging from changing the facade to installing fire protection barriers.

“The second day after the fire we held meetings so this does not happen again. We will start a survey for all buildings, not just in Dubai, to find solutions. Each building will have a different solution,” Lt Col Ibrahim said.

“We will find out if cladding is approved, installation is OK. The law is very clear that the owner is responsible for the building so after the survey if some issue is found, the owner will have to replace what needs to be replaced. We are focused on saving lives; that is important to us.”

A spokesperson for the Ajam hotel’s developer, Emaar, insisted that all of its buildings “are developed as per the specifications by the concerned authorities. The buildings are tested periodically and cleared for adhering to the regulatory standards.”

Aiad Mushaikh, project director of the Emirates Academy of Civil Defence Sciences, also announced plans to to train 1,000 fire fighters every year and dramatically increase fire safety training among the public.

With no casualties in the recent trio of fires (though plenty of injuries) at least the evacuation procedures are working, or at least well enough – so far. It remains to be seen whether that good fortune continues.

The ASFP will host the Passive Fire Protection Zone at this year’s FIREX International 2016. Surrounded by 20 of its members, it will be on hand to offer comprehensive guidance on all passive fire-protection-related issues, including structural fire protection, fire stopping, fire resisting ducting, fire dampers, fire resisting partitions and all elements used for compartmentation within all forms of construction. 

Click here to register for FIREX 2016, which takes place between 21-23 June at London ExCeL.

More IFSEC Global articles on fires and associated regulatory issues in tall buildings:

 

 

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