Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
July 26, 2016

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Dubai High-Rise Fires: Sky-High Cladding Costs Might Prompt Focus on Active Fire Protection Instead

The fire that recently broke out in the 75-storey Sulafa Tower in Dubai Marina is the latest in a string of high-rise blazes in Dubai.

It comes just four months after a fire destroyed dozens of apartments in the Ajman One complex and seven months since the blaze that engulfed the 63-storey Address Downtown Hotel on New Years Eve. The Torch apartment building also went up in flames last year, with 100 flats severely damaged, and in 2012 the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers was destroyed.

Fire safety experts have attributed the rapid spread of these fires to the use of combustible plastic-filled aluminium composite panels – sometimes without fire breaks – in at least 30,000 buildings across the Emirates. The Sulafa Tower was built in 2010, three years before the material was outlawed in Dubai.

IFSEC Global reported on the issue back in 2013, with Claire Mahoney, editor at Security Middle East Magazine, noting that “cost-conscious developers have left a legacy of fire risk in many of the United Arab Emirates’ iconic high-rise towers.”

“Rapid and extensive”

James Lane, head of fire engineering at BB7, says the latest fire was more evidence of fire protection deficiencies in Dubai’s built environment. However, he does note the merciful absence of fatalities from the spate of fires so far – no mean feat perhaps in some of the world’s tallest buildings.

“Another high-rise apartment block is apparently victim to the poor fire properties of its external cladding,” he said. “Any building constructed before the 2013 change in the local fire codes will be at risk from this kind of rapid and extensive fire spread unless major work is undertaken in the region to replace combustible insulation core cladding panels with a suitable alternative.

“Thankfully there are no reported serious injuries, showing that life safety fire precautions are robust enough to cope when one component fails catastrophically.”

Maybe it’s time for the owners of buildings with these external cladding systems to consider alternative measures to improve fire safety for residents, such as suitable power supply to lifts for use in evacuation or sprinkler or watermist protection.” James Lane, head of fire engineering, BB7

But Phil Barry, a fire safety consultant with Gloucester-based CWB Fire Safety, warned after the New Years Eve fire at the time that “there will be fatalities sooner or later”. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph he estimated that up to 70% of Dubai’s high-rise buildings could be clad in polyurethane and aluminium composite cladding.

Visitors to Dubai would find it difficult to find out whether their hotel or accommodation block was clad in flammable or non-flammable material. “It’s not obvious just to look at it,” said Barry.

Former firefighter Barry also blasted lax fire safety inspections, which were often conducted by unqualified expats or undermined by corruption.

James Lane of BB7, a UK-based risk and resilience consulting firm, suggests the financial implications of rectifying the fire protection shortcomings in the city-state’s towering skyline might necessitate some out-of-the-box thinking. “What is the cost of repairs? I can have a reasonable guess at how the insurance industry will react,” he said.

“Maybe now is the time for the owners of buildings with these external cladding systems to consider what alternative measures can be adopted to improve fire safety for their residents, such as suitable power supply to lifts for use in evacuation or sprinkler or watermist protection. Whatever the solution, without strong policy, strategy and procedures in fire safety management there can be no confidence that any fire system will be maintained to operate as expected when needed.”

Three of the world’s top aluminium composite panel makers say that demand for their highest-rated panels was almost non-existent in the Gulf region, according to ABC news

The latest fire was at least brought under control within three hours. There were also – like the previous fires mentioned – no fatalities, which suggests evacuation procedures are rather superior to passive fire protection in the region. Some residents were even allowed back into the building within hours of the fire being extinguished.

The biggest risk of casualties was arguably to firefighters, who had to douse flames from inside the building because it was surrounded by two construction sites. At least a dozen fire engines and more than 50 firefighters tackled the blaze.

Authorities have promised to supervise construction crews more closely and monitor the materials being used.

An amended UAE Fire and Life Safety Code, which prescribes heavy fines for any construction professionals and manufacturers found to be using or selling proscribed fire safety materials, is scheduled for publication this year.

“Non-existent” demand

However, a building code introduced in in the city-state in 2012 to halt use of flammable aluminium composite panels has still not being fully implemented because of the high cost of system tests. Indeed, three of the world’s top aluminium composite panel makers say that demand for their highest-rated panels was almost non-existent in the region, according to ABC news.   Speaking to Gulf News an Iranian resident at the Sulafa Tower said: “The municipality should do something about these inflammable claddings. I think the fire was brought under control within the first hour but then pieces of debris flew and landed on the other side of the building and the cladding caught fire, which kept moving down,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.”

James Lane also wrote an article on Dubai’s high rise problem in January. Speaking in the wake of the Address Hotel fire, he wrote that “reviewing footage posted by various sources online does, however, support the popular view that the main conduit for the rapid spread of flame up the outside of the building appears to be the Aluminium Composite Panel (ACP) with a polyurethane core used for the external cladding system.

“Suggestions for a solution include spraying the external surface with fire resisting coatings, retro-fitting façade sprinklers or “simply” recladding all the affected buildings. Either of which would attract massive costs.”

The retro-fitting skyscrapers with exterior sprinklers or spraying them with fire-retardant materials is likely to be delayed until legal wrangles over whether developers or building owners bear the prohibitively expensive costs are resolved.

The Address Hotel blaze was cited in a presentation on how to evacuate tall buildings safely at FIREX 2016.

Read our look at 5 of history’s worst skyscraper fires.

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The important thing is that they are all extremely happy to get it. To us, it does not turn out that Security works to prevent damage. To us, it turns out that Security works only after getting the damage, even if it had the possibility of prevention

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Is the hotel owners not going to jail to have ever left the poor aluminum material in the Hotel? Dubai, UAE is a risk of rebellion for the jail that has suffered and suffers, while others are too unpunished

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