FOCUS: Fire safety
by Kim Kemp
With regular reports of fires throughout the Gulf region, Mark Fenton, business leader Honeywell fire safety, Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, Africa and Middle East, reveals his observations around the perceived upsurge during the summer months.
Are there more fires in summer?
I haven't seen any statistics to say that summer fires are more than winter fires.
If you look at the typical risk, maybe in an older building, it is generally because people are using more air conditioning, or AC units, putting more load on the electricity or power supply within the building and, if it is not designed to take that extra load, or it's not installed correctly or badly maintained, then there is a risk that there will be an overload on the system and potentially cause a fire.
I've noticed Civil Defence trying to monitor this in Dubai, where about five years ago they started to clamp down on where people were sub-letting rooms, or partitioning rooms.
How big a part does poor construction play in fires?
Some of the older villas would not be up to the modern standards.
If you look at what's getting built now in Dubai, the standards are to international standards; it's European, US standards. And, you are now seeing with Civil Defence that there are a lot more inspections on buildings in terms of fire safety generally. So there is a good chance that older buildings were not inspected as thoroughly.
I think the Civil Defence here do a pretty good job of responding to any particular situation, and are trying to raise the standards.
In the ten years that I have been here, I have seen a ramp up in the standards in terms of the way they are making the building codes more robust, with inspection before you start on site, to completed on site – you have to get the building tested. And then maintenance... it's ongoing. And this is more around fire safety, from my perspective. And now there is focus on some of the older buildings, making sure that fire safety standards are being implemented.
Are the standards in the Gulf truly international?
I think you have to look at it from two aspects; this is a long cycle. Once you build a building, it's very difficult to expect everybody to retrospectively upgrade their buildings to the latest standard. It's usually costly, hard to manage, and hard to monitor.
They can put things in place but it's a difficult process. So, even in the last two or three years where we've seen certainly Qatar raise the standards, it's not just on building codes and standards, we see on trade compliance as well, the products we bring in and things like that.
It takes a long time for all buildings to be up to that standard; it's just not going to happen overnight; what they are doing is trying to improve the standards of inspection and maintenance.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to implementing fire safety in the Gulf area?
One challenge is bringing a lot of people from different cultures and backgrounds together, whose level of safety awareness is different.
In the labour camps, it comes down to the owners of the camps making sure that they’re fit for purpose in terms of the electrical system, to deal with the air conditioning, the cooking and the lighting – and that it's designed for the right number of people. If you put more people in, you are going to have more potential problems.
In residences, a thing I have seen make a difference in the UK is the responsibility for the safety of the building resting with the tenant. It's not the landlord or the Civil Defence, as the best person to judge the safety of the building is the people who are in the building.
The onus is on the owners as well as good workmanship and good maintenance.
One of the things we would like to see is greater harmonisation of standards. We’ve seen a lot of changes [as a manufacturer] around how we must import our products, how we have to get approvals, trade compliance, etc. especially in Qatar. But it’s not consistent across the Gulf region; there are slightly different variants, for example shipping to different countries.
This adds to costs and time from a business perspective. And the rules tend to change without notice – you find out about the changes when you have a problem.
Who is leading the charge to educate the public?
From a fire safety point of view, we work with the Civil Defence doing surveys to gauge public awareness.
We do the detection and alarm and we help get people out, and we help control the building, but we don't put fires out, we don't do passive protection, and we don't do cladding.
One of the things that we want to discuss with the Civil Defence is putting something into the tenancy contract with the landlord and the tenant to outline the basic things you can and can't do. For example, you shouldn’t be smoking shisha or having barbeques on balconies.
At the moment, it's optional with the landlord. Maybe it will come down to whether or not the building has the right fire-proof cladding on it?
This involves a number of parties: Civil Defence; the Real Estate Regulatory Agency (RERA) would be another in terms of setting minimum standards; and obviously, the landlords and maybe the facilities management companies as well. If you see someone breaking the law, for example, smoking shisha on a balcony when it is against the building’s rules, you have the right to report that.
Which country in the Gulf leads this process?
I would say that UAE [specifically Dubai] leads on this front. They have done a pretty good job. If you look at its business model, it’s the only Gulf country that is not oil-centric, so it has to show that it is leading the way in other areas to attract business.
If I compare the main five safety standards here to most European countries, they are up there with most countries.