DUBAI // The agency in charge of fire codes in Dubai is close to completing a sweeping examination of standards at every building in the city. Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) hired 300 fire inspectors from a private company in 2008 to thoroughly sift through the estimated 60,000 high-rises, warehouses, office buildings and homes in the emirate, said Ali al Mutawa, DCD's head of operations. His comments come after a series of serious fires over the past week, including a ferocious blaze that destroyed the National Paints factory in Sharjah, a fire that ripped through five warehouses in Dubai on Wednesday and another at a mattress factory in Al Quoz on Saturday.
The inspections are to finish by the end of the year. It has been a monumental endeavour for the team - 200 buildings per inspector, each assigned with scrutinising the sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and alarms, among other features, at a pace of more than a building a week. Not only are the inspectors on track towards completing the task, according to Mr al Mutawa, they also are helping bring Dubai closer to its goal of having "a zero fire rate."
"I know it is impossible right now, but, at the same time, Dubai has become more safe," he said. "In 2004-2005, there used to be a fire on a daily basis. But today, the reality has changed, and we have gained control over the situation." The recent fires suggest that the battle is still uphill for the country, as individual emirates for the most part maintain a patchwork of standards and regulations.
Abu Dhabi's Department of Municipal Affairs introduced minimum fire safety standards, such as mandatory sprinklers, fire exits and smoke detectors, late last year after a spate of fires. Sharjah's industrial areas, perhaps more than any other in the country, have been plagued by fires, most recently by the blaze that wrecked the National Paints building last week. But in Dubai, the numbers spoke for themselves, Mr al Mutawa said. In the first four months of the year, 572 fires were reported, a drop of 45 per cent from the same period last year.
If the current rate sticks, 2010 would be the second consecutive year in which the incidence of fires dropped by more than 40 per cent. Mr al Mutawa said: "It's increased public awareness of fire safety, increased inspections, as well as ramped-up enforcement of [alarm] systems which help to detect fires at an early stage." The drop would represent a marked improvement from the sort of infernos that reduced scores of buildings in Al Quoz to rubble after a fireworks warehouse caught fire in 2008. The blaze, which killed two people, was described by Gen Saif al Shafar, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, as the largest fire in UAE history.
Martin Seaward-Case, the chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Dubai, said the reason that recent fires had grabbed attention was that they had taken place in industrial areas. "They'll be more dramatic given the materials that are burning," he said. "You'll also see spectacular displays because of that." Hareb al Tunaiji, the head of Sharjah's emergency inspection committee, said industrial areas typically posed particularly hazardous problems because of the flammable materials stored in large quantities.
Al Ittihad newspaper has reported that the committee, created four years ago, recently stopped working with nearly half a dozen firefighting supplies companies after it was sold counterfeit products. Mr al Tunaiji said the committee had 70 inspectors who conduct fire inspections throughout the emirate, including the roughly 60,000 businesses in Sharjah's industrial areas. "We mostly inspect the industrial area," he said, adding that each company in the area "is inspected twice a year".
That would require roughly 1,715 inspections a year per inspector for the industrial area alone. Captain Yasser al Qotairi, a spokesman for Abu Dhabi Civil Defence, placed the blame for fires on building managers. "They are usually negligent and careless about safety measures, or sometimes they lack the awareness or the supervisor doesn't care about the safety of the workers," he said. But an executive at a residential developer with projects in Dubai expressed concern that thorough fire inspections might have been difficult for authorities to conduct.
"When you come to inspect a huge development and you do these in a week, you might miss something," said the official, who did not want to be named. "When civil defence comes they are professional, they try to check everything. But from a practical point of view, how can you inspect a tower of 40 or 50 storeys in a couple of weeks?" Mr al Mutawa believes otherwise. Aside from the expected seasonal increase of summer fires, brought on by increased electricity demand for air conditioners and cooling units, what was once an unwieldy phenomenon is essentially being tamed.
"Dubai is a safer place now," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Haneen Dajani