This growth is due in part to the development of fire safety regulations, which have evolved with the UAE. Until the start of the decade, the country used international fire codes. It introduced its own set of technical requirements– the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice – in 2011, based on international fire safety standards. Dubai Civil Defence updated the legislation in 2017 to include stricter regulations on building materials, especially cladding. Minor amendments were also made to the code in 2018 and further periodical updatesto consider the changing market conditions and advancement in technology are also expected.
Fire safety is a big challenge in Dubai as there are so many high-rise buildings. The key question is: how do you evacuate a tall and a super tall building, taking into consideration mobility-impaired people as well?
9/11 prompted a number of changes to international building safety and fire prevention codes for high-rise buildings, including widening the width of stairwells and new rules concerning the use of lifts.
Elevators for the industry
In the event of fire, evacuees are historically advised against using elevators and many systems are programmed to descend to the ground floor when fire alarms are activated. International codes require buildings taller than 36.6 metres to have a fire-service access elevator to avoid fire fighters carrying heavy equipment upstairs. They also provide guidance on enhanced elevators for building occupants’ use instead of exit stairways.
The concern was that water would get into the elevator mechanics. Modern elevators, however, can be designed against water ingress, allowing for a fire-resistant shaft, which also has its own power supply.
Another option for super tall buildings is a refuge area or temporary safe havens where people can rest while evacuating down stairwells. The refuge areas are fire separated from other parts of the building and air conditioned, and the evacuation route takes you through these areas, so those who need to use them can do so.
There are growing numbers of tall towers in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi with elevators that can be used for emergency evacuations and refuge areas. It is important residents are made aware when this is the case and are instructed how to use them through emergency drills.
Most tower blocks in the UAE are fitted with sprinklers and alarm systems, and have fire barriers and doors for effective fire separation and compartmentalisation. The tragic loss of 72 lives during the Grenfell fire in the UK in June 2017 happened because it was an old building. It was designed in 1967 and hadn’t been upgraded to modern fire safety standards. If the tower was built today, it would not use that configuration: there would be more exits and it would be fitted with sprinklers. That fire also showed the importance of regular fire audits, which is a growing market here in the UAE.
As consultants, we recommend building owners have an annual audit carried out by a fire safety professional. This is especially important in older properties as this is usually where the greater risk lies.
A fire audit tests the building firefighting and alarm system and examines the exit routes to verify an acceptable level of fire and life safety. Often, we see corridors and stairwells used for storage or find the final door is locked or blocked. Sometimes landscaping has been done without consideration for fire hazards and you find hedges or trees planted immediately outside the exit, which would obstructexit doors. Without emergency drills, you would never discover this until you are in a situation when every second matters.
Fire safety engineers understand the risks and can mandate measures to mitigate them. They will also tell you if the building is still in compliance with the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice. An annual audit is not always mandated, but an insurance company could find areas of negligence if regular checks are not made.
Regular audits of fire safety equipment can also prevent false alarms. These can be hazardous in themselves. You don’t want people, especially the elderly and infirm, walking down 30 flights of stairs for no reason. And the more often a building has false alarms, the less likely occupants are to respond immediately in the event of a real fire.
External fire spread due to combustible cladding is a danger because fire safety systems are not designed for multiple fires. The sprinkler systems are designed to quickly supress an internal fire incident and have limited volumes of water. The conventional evacuation strategy for high-rise buildings is to empty the floor where the fire is and the one above and below, not the entire building. As such, exits are not normally intended for a simultaneous mass building evacuation.
When combustible cladding ignites, all these equations are broken. The fire spread is unpredictable, which makes extinguishing it much harder. The flames move up, down and across the building, and as the material melts and drips, new fires can break out on the building and in the surrounding area. The emergency services arrive expecting one fire and end up battling on all fronts.
It is topic I feel so passionate about that I am helping to organise a one-week Continuing Professional Development Course on External Fire Spread Risk in Tall Building Design in Dubai in March with experts from the Universities of Edinburgh, Maryland and Queensland. I attended the course in Australia and I felt this was something Dubai needed. I expect building professionals and members of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Civil Defence to attend. They will learn about the implications of using cladding products capable of supporting vertical flame spread and the interactions between the cladding of a façade and the building in the event of a fire.
The most common fires in the UAE involve industrial warehouses, apartment buildings and residential villas. Internationally, the most frequent cause of ignition is cooking appliances, electrical faults, smokers' materials and cigarette lighters. When it comes to residential fires in the UAE, smoke inhalation is one of the biggest dangers to human life.
Sounding the alarm
With this in mind, the UAE Ministry of Interior teamed up with Etisalat in 2018 to roll out a centralised smart fire alarm system to protect villas. The initiative, known as Hassantuk For Homes, aims to cover all properties by 2023, reducing fatalities and drastically cutting emergency response times. The fire detection systems are linked to a receiving centre, where artificially intelligent technology determines whether Civil Defence response is required or if it is a false alarm. A similar programme has been developed with Injazat Data Systems covering the fire alarm reporting of commercial and public buildings.
The rapid evolution of technology, means that new devices, many of which are showcased at this week’s Intersec, are coming to the market all the time. Innovations include video image smoke detection, air quality monitors, smoke detectors with pre-programmed vocal smoke alarms, occupancy monitors and multi-sensors that are interconnected, and the Internet of Things to communicate with each other.
A lot of research has been conducted into active and dynamic signage systems, which guide people to the most appropriate exits (not necessarily the nearest) based upon real time measurements of crowd numbers as well as fire and smoke levels.
These systems use artificial intelligence with audible notifications and flashing arrows to steer people towards the safest route and away from the fire. The unsafe exits are indicated by a red cross. This is a really important step forward for the industry as this provides better response from building occupants and can avoid bottlenecks during an evacuation.
There is also a growing amount of wearable technology being developed for firefighters, for example to measure their vital signs, track their location and to detect the presence of gas. But many of these systems and devices have still to be fully tested and approved. And none of them will ever be able to compensate for a badly designed or maintained building.