Complex Made Simple

High-rise fire safety in the GCC: what you need to know

The Gulf region’s fire-safety systems market is estimated to hit $3.15 billion by 2020, with an annual growth rate of 15 per cent, according global analyst firm Frost & Sullivan.

Major industrial and commercial investments have contributed to the surge in regional fire-safety demand. In addition, dramatic fires have hit skyscrapers in Dubai and other fast-growing cities in the GCC in recent years, which is also driving demand.

In the UAE alone, there have been 12 fire-related incidents in the first three months of 2017. Building and safety experts have cited a popular type of cladding covering the buildings that can be highly flammable.

However, the UAE’s Ministry of Interior has revealed a 31 per cent drop in fire accidents in buildings and establishments in 2016, compared to the previous year.

Major General Jassem Mohammed Al Marzouqi, General Commander of Civil Defence at the Ministry of Interior, said: ‘‘Fatalities from fires also declined from 23 in 2015 to 16 in 2016, a decrease of 52 per cent. Fires at households went down by seven per cent in 2016, when compared to the 2015 figures.”

Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) officials unveiled an updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code at Dubai’s Intersec 2017 exhibition in January. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain are also planning to update their fire safety guidelines soon.

Best way to deal with fire is to prevent it

As UAE’s new fire code comes into force, it is important for contractors, consultants, and engineers to be aware of the latest guidelines related to cladding. These include new requirements for testing and for installation.

David Adams, Managing Director of Knauf Exeed Insulation in the Middle East and South Asia, says: “UAE’s fire code requirements continue to evolve as the country embraces international best practices in fire safety. As the UAE’s new fire code will undoubtedly be enforced, it is important for all parties involved to be aware about the changes.

“Industry professionals should aim to ensure that ACP Panels on high rise buildings are A2 non-combustible, thermal Insulation on the facade applications should be non-combustible, on every slab level a firestop material needs to be used and all of the components of the façade system needs to be tested as a system.”

Moreover, here are some important points to note to prevent fires in office towers:

1. Maintain unobstructed common hallways and means of exiting

2. Maintain fire alarm systems and keep them certified/updated annually

3. Maintain fire escapes and any equipment required to lower fire escape ladders to the street below

4. Provide smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and check regularly

Challenges lead to opportunity

According to the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), 26 out of the 100 tallest completed buildings in the world are in the GCC.

This makes it a key focus area for all major fire and safety solution providers. It also means the region is often in the spotlight due to fires that have occurred in high-rise buildings.

However, there are still challenges to overcome:

1. The growth of the fire safety market in high-rise buildings is primarily driven by fire and safety codes. Manufacturers find it difficult to deal with inconsistencies like changing codes and implementation, according to a report published at Intersec 2017.

2. Frost & Sullivan forecasts that the industrial segment, particularly petrochemicals, would continue to dominate the demand for fire safety systems in the GCC. With unstable oil prices it is likely that any investments in the oil & gas sector would be for critical requirements only. Therefore, this demand from the industrial sector may not come to fruition as early as anticipated.

3. Authorities are making it mandatory to install fire systems in new buildings. In the case of older buildings, the installation of fire safety systems is ad hoc. These buildings were built on past codes, which may not be as stringent as necessary and are not in adherence to the new requirements, according to Frost & Sullivan. Also, retrofitting can be expensive and may not be in the budget of building owners.

4. For firefighters, the physiological demands are much higher due to the heat and dense toxic smoke. Even experienced firefighting crews wearing protection equipment find it difficult to do a rescue operation in a smoke-filled building. Therefore, planning for successful operation in high-rise towers is becoming high priority for businesses, according to an Intersec report.

5. Cost-effective single-sensor detectors are no longer considered adequate in certain situations. End-users and facility managers are increasingly interested in a single user-friendly to control the operation of the systems in a building.

In the headlines…

A fire at the Address Downtown Dubai hotel on New Year’s Eve 2015 contributed to a complete transformation of the fire safety laws in the UAE. The incident raised questions surrounding the quality of the building’s facade and also surrounding materials used on facades in high-rise towers throughout the region.

And the latest notable incident that comes as a warning for building developers happened in the UK. At least 12 people died after the huge fire destroyed the Grenfell Tower block in north Kensington, west London, on Tuesday (June 13). Nearly 80 people were treated at six London hospitals, including 17 who remain in critical care.

Grenfell Tower, which was built in 1974, was recently refurbished at a cost of $11 million, with work completed in May last year.

A blog post from Grenfell Action Group in November said “only a catastrophic event” would expose the concerns residents had. The group said there was one entry and exit to the tower during improvement works and it had issues with evacuation procedures.

Concerns had also been raised about exposed gas pipes weeks before the devastating blaze.