By Peter Sells
Jan. 3, 2016, Mississauga, Ont. - My phone had been buzzing all afternoon, with texts, whatsapps and Facebook messages from my friends around the world.
By Peter Sells
I can confirm that my whereabouts at the time of The Address fire in Dubai on Dec. 31 was a dentist’s chair in Mississauga (I have witnesses). The latest news is that at least 20 floors of The Address were involved in fire, although the visual evidence would seem to indicate more extensive involvement, at least on the exterior.
Some background; The Address Hotel is located adjacent to the Dubai Mall, and across the Dubai Fountain pond from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The Address is a beautiful and very expensive property, one of the premiere hotels in Dubai.
The Address was completed in 2008; during a time when there was effectively no prevailing fire code in the UAE. Like hundreds of other buildings in Dubai and the neighbouring emirates, The Address was finished on the exterior with flammable cladding materials, comprising plastic or polyurethane fillings – called a thermo-plastic core – sandwiched between aluminum panels. The sandwich panels are generally used for insulation, to improve rigidity and for aesthetic purposes.
In 2012 alone, such cladding panels were factors in spreading fires at both the Al Baker Tower 4 and the Al Tayer Tower in Sharjah (the downmarket emirate immediately northeast of Dubai), and the 34-storey Tamweel Tower fire (a total loss) in Dubai’s Tecom district. Of highest profile was the February 2015 fire in the ironically named Torch tower, a luxury high rise residence in the Dubai Marina district and the tallest residential building in the world at the time of its completion in 2011. The wind-driven Torch fire rendered more than 100 apartments in the 86-storey, 330-metre-tall skyscraper uninhabitable for many weeks.
The 2012 blazes prompted the UAE Ministry of Interior to introduce an extension to the brand-new UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice requiring cladding for new buildings to adhere to tough new fire safety regulations and outlawing the use of foamed plastic insulation. Further, in 2013, Civil Defence chiefs announced an extension to existing fire safety codes requiring owners of high-rise buildings with flammable cladding to install a ring of fire-retardant panels every three floors, in order to limit fires spreading up or down the side of a building, and external sprinklers. There are no statistics available on how many building owners have complied with these retrofit requirements, but inspection and enforcement are not strong suits in the UAE fire-protection environment.
In Dubai as in all other communities, what’s on paper is simply on paper. People live and work in buildings as built, not as designed. Despite anything printed in the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, de facto safety practices in the Gulf Region tend toward consideration of the interests of building owners over those of residents. Investors want to maximize returns, owners want to minimize costs, and some contractors will cut any corner they think will be overlooked. This may seem like a revised version of The Golden Rule; i.e., “Those who have the gold make the rules,” but it is not very different in principle from the protracted battle in recent years to get sprinklers into Ontario’s nursing homes. In both instances, people in authority knew the right thing to do but balked at the cost, essentially putting a price tag on lives.
It is often pointed out that the UAE, and Dubai in particular, has come a long way in a short few decades of development. It must also be recognized that Dubai has a long way to go to live up to the image it presents as a modern city. With hundreds of improperly clad skyscrapers across the skyline, there will be further instances of fires like Tamweel, Torch and The Address.
Dubai Civil Defence will be ready for the next one, though. In November, DCD signed an agreement to purchase 20 fire/rescue jetpacks. Yes, you read that right. In recognition of the hazards posed by the Torch fire, DCD will be training firefighters in the use of jetpacks for high-rise fire and rescue operations. Here’s the link:
I will just leave that to readers to evaluate, but I will keep on top of that cutting-edge development and let you all know how it flies.
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He currently is on vacation from a long-term assignment in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as chief technical consultant on a project to design, build and operate the Emirates Civil Defence Academy. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org