Debating the UAE’s fire and safety code with local experts

The updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code was unveiled at Dubai’s Intersec 2017 exhibition, held in January this year. Lt Taher Hassan Altaher, head of DCD’s inspection and permitting section, had said that the 1,384-page code – 677 pages longer than its 2011 version – has been prepared based on international references and feedback from consultants, contractors and local property developers such as Emaar and Deyaar.

Despite the announcement of an updated code four months back, there is just one element missing: the code itself or rather a published version of it. Although, there are unofficial versions available, contractors, consultants and manufacturers still feel the code is a bit ambiguous.

At roundtable, held by MEA’s sister title MEP to address these issues and talk about fire and safety in general, Thiru S, divisional manager at TransPro System – part of Trans Gulf Electromechanical – said that the code has almost doubled in terms of pages, but that it would reduce the fire risk in buildings.
“There is going to be more accountability in terms of who is responsible for the fire and what they could have done,” he said. “Accountability is actually a vague thing, whenever there is a fire accident. Now, there is a separate chapter in the code for it – Chapter 8. I think they have come up with a stakeholder’s responsibility.”

Chapter 8
Prodding more on the subject of accountability, Thiru S said that, “it actually puts pressure on the stakeholders, starting from the owners or developers. There are separate pages for each of them citing their responsibilities, but when it comes to fire, companies have in-house expertise. WSP, for example, if it’s confirmed for a project, it will have a fire engineer on board for a specific job. Apart from that, the owner or the client can also apply for counsel. They can look at the design, verify it, and inspect and supervise the insulation.”

Robert Davies, head of fire and life safety at WSP, added that there is still a gap in the whole process of accountability. “It’s not about a new code or more documentation,” he said. “There’s plenty of information out there on how to do things, with proper guidance and illustration. What matters is the enforcement of it. As a fire consultant, we can do a design and hand it over. What happens on site or from an operational point of view is out of our hands, unfortunately.”

According to Davies, accountability is an enforcement issue that Chapter 8 is designed to incorporate, ensuring that people involved in the process, from the designer to the contractor to the operator, can be held responsible.

The devil lies in the design
Despite the new legislation, the engineers and architects in the discussion were wary how many of the steps listed out could be done correctly. Gary Walton, managing director at JPW Consulting Group, noted that policing in various stages of construction is hard to do. “It starts off with good design, a good contractor, and then somewhere on that route it becomes unclear,” Walton said. “If we put responsibility on each of those steps, then it’s possible for accountability to work.”

Though she wasn’t at the roundtable, Louise Pitt, marketing and CRM manager at Geberit, noted that fire safety in a country can only be as good as its weakest component, especially in terms of new technology.
“If elements from various manufacturers are combined, there’s a risk of compromises at the interfaces,” she said. “Compliance with applicable standards and regulations is likewise more difficult. Geberit offers complete systems, which provide a demonstrably high level of safety giving critical time before the spread of a fire through the drainage pipes.”

Holes in walls and ceilings, she added, as well as installation ducts can favour the spreading of fires in a building if they aren’t closed correctly, and in accordance with standards. “Geberit fire protection sleeves close the pipe, opening in the event of fire and prevent the spreading of smoke, fire and heat to other rooms, floors or parts of the building,” Pitt said.

Everything starts with good design, but sometimes, designs are approved without due diligence, said Dipak Jain, head of engineering and procurement at Trans Gulf Electromechanical. “This is where the problem lies. We can have as many codes as we want, but they are not diligently implemented. The MEP consultants supervises the job, but do we have any fire specialists? And Chapter 8 – what I take from it is that it precisely defines the pump selection and everything in the new code. They have defined what size pump you need for which building. But how honestly it is implemented? That is the question.”

While many of these issues can be pre-empted with good design, Davies admitted that a lack of time often pushes architects, engineers and contractors to scuttle forward.

It’s about budget
According to Thiru S, it all boils down to budget. “What I have seen is the maintenance contractor going to a building and check all maintenance and fire safety issues in a building. And then another guy will come and give you a price of 3,000 dirhams for four visits. That’s a problem.”

Walton said that the credentials of the inspector also need to be important. They need to be experienced, and knowledgeable about checking a project.

“Everyone is cutting corners,” said Gaurav Bhatnagar, head of sales and marketing for the Middle East and Africa and Armacell. “In our case, as manufacturers, if I have to govern my product as per specifications, I have to drive it within the organisation, within each and every person in the organisation, as a process, and on a personal level too. If you say that the product should qualify for ASTM e84, I have to make sure that in my manufacturing process, the product, which comes to the site, is of ASTM e84 standard.”

Over-engineering
Does over-engineering ensure the safety of a building? As Bhatnagar noted, there’s too much content available in the market from the developed nations or the developed economies in terms of regulations and standards. “We are adhering to the best possible solution,” he said.

“If I over-engineer and supply a product that isn’t commercially viable or is over-specified for the building, it doesn’t serve the purpose. Over-engineering would be over-specifying. If I over-specify in terms of a particular product, I am absolutely increasing the commercial value of the project itself. At least, I know in terms of the UAE, the best standards are available for us to apply. It’s the manufacturer’s social responsibility to adhere to those specifications and provide the right product.”

This feature was written by Rajiv Ravindran Pillai and published in Middle East Architect’s August issue.

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