x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lessons in firefighting

Feature At Abu Dhabi's Al Falah fire station, a specialised unit of German firemen supplements the work of the Civil Defence.

A fireman rests during a warehouse fire in Dubai in March. The combination of high outside temperatures, protective suits and equipment means that heat exhaustion is a risk.
A fireman rests during a warehouse fire in Dubai in March. The combination of high outside temperatures, protective suits and equipment means that heat exhaustion is a risk.

"This is all new stuff", says Daniel von Chamier excitedly. "In Germany, we normally get a new fire truck every 15 or 25 years. This is all new." As the 25-year-old shows me the gleaming fleet of fire engines and support vehicles at the Al Falah fire station off Muroor Street, he's like a child in a toyshop.

"When I arrived four years ago, none of this was here. We didn't have any of these modern trucks. This is state-of-the-art firefighting equipment." Mr von Chamier, a fireman from Frankfurt, is responsible for training the station's new recruits in technical rescue, first aid and the handling of hazardous materials. He's part of a team of 88 German firemen contracted to the Technical Rescue and Quick Intervention Department, a specialised unit created in 2003, shortly after a fire destroyed the old souq in central Abu Dhabi. The unit supplements the work of the Civil Defence, providing a highly efficient, rapid response to medium- and large-scale incidents across the emirate and beyond - incidents which include major fires, road crashes and construction accidents.

So far, it's been a success. "Nobody has died after we've arrived on the scene," Mr von Chamier said. "Everyone has been working very professionally and I have been surprised at how well my team has done." This is particularly impressive considering the fact that the Al Falah team comprises 100 Emiratis, 60 Turks and 13 Germans all working together. "There is a slight language boundary, but we teach courses in technical English and do a lot of our training by doing," Mr von Chamier added.

While a dedicated training centre will open in two years, the training current recruits receive includes putting out fires in containers arranged to look like apartments at a site in Musaffah. "Here you can still set fire to stuff," he says, ironically. "You can't do this in Europe any more because of environmental considerations." For Manfred Wilkens, a retired fireman from Bremen who is the executive team head of the whole project - which has trained over 1,500 firemen in the past four years under a contract between Abu Dhabi Police and ProfiNet, a German network of professionals - the biggest challenge lies not in the cultural or language differences between staff but in the infuriatingly vague attitude of the general public to Abu Dhabi's residential address system.

"The main problem is that people don't know where they live,"says Mr Wilkens. "Sometimes when the unit goes out we do not know exactly where we have to go. Sometimes we have to send two fire engines in two different directions. What the control room needs is the number of the building, found on a plate at the front, and the street name. But people say, 'Oh, I don't know, there's a green house with blue windows' or 'I'm in a villa with a balcony'. We waste minutes upon minutes searching."

The amount of time wasted getting to fires in Abu Dhabi is further exacerbated by the city's road system. "Because people do not always tell us which direction to approach in, sometimes we can see the fire on the opposite side of the street but we have to drive for a kilometre and do a U-turn. If the people are standing at the window and the fire is behind, it's a very critical point." Traffic is another issue. "It is very important for us to save time but in traffic in rush hour all the lanes are full, the trucks cannot move and nobody respects us enough to move out of the way," says Mr Wilkens, "and then people ask why we are late."

In firefighting, timing is everything. Statistics show that in more than 90 per cent of cases, 14 to 17 minutes after a fire started is the last window in which people can be brought out of buildings alive. "The time starts when the emergency call comes in," Mr Wilkens says. "The fire will not wait. It is possible to get all the information that is required - name, address, which floor and what has happened - within one minute, but the time is running. A call normally comes three and a half minutes after the fire starts. We take the information and dispatch the crew. That gives us only eight minutes travelling time and we have only four minutes for life rescue. This is the timetable we have to run, and if we are running around, we don't have time. We are racing against time and there is a deadline."

To mitigate the effects of wasted time when rescuing people from tall buildings, the team has switched from using telescopic ladders to a turntable, which can reach a height of 53 metres in just two and a half minutes, down from a maximum of seven. It also uses new, 60,000 litre water tankers. Two years ago, Mr Wilkens commissioned a Geographical Information System (GIS) project to map the whole city in detail. This means that if the exact location of an incident is known, the driver can take a "mission information sheet" out with him. The drawings list the particulars of all the major buildings and hotels in the city, including information on all the floors, with the locations of hydrants, hose reels and even office partitions. It's a huge task which requires constant updating, yet Wilkens is optimistic. "Forty years ago there was nothing here but sand. In that time the city has developed at high speed, but a firefighting culture takes time."

Mr Wilkens' project also has teams at fire stations in Al Ain, Khalifa City, Mohammed Bin Zayed City and Ruwais. Bernd Graffunder, a recruit from the Berlin Fire Brigade and the team head for the western region project, said firemen in the UAE had yet to gain the same level of respect from the general public as their counterparts in Europe or America. "Here they just extinguish fire. But it is important for society to know that someone is coming, that he knows what he is doing and that he can help. So to be a firefighter means that you need a lot of training and knowledge."

That training starts with two hours in the gym every morning. "You need to have power like a well-trained sportsman," Mr Graffunder said. "When there is 45 degree heat outside and you are fighting a fire in a protective suit and carrying equipment, body temperature can get up to 38 or 39 degrees. You lose a lot of liquid and it's like working in a fever. You lose minerals and sugar and you can only work for 10 or 20 minutes before we have to change the crew. It doesn't make sense to climb the stairs and be exhausted when you reach the fire. You have to be ready to go into a fire and start working after climbing up 17 flights of stairs."

According to Mr Wilkens, in the last five years changes have been made to building codes and working shifts have been cut from 48 hours to 12. "We are changing the culture through training and being successful, by being on time at the fire and extinguishing the fire. After three months' training, we took the trucks together to the first huge accident, a crane crash on the Corniche. A 150 metre crane had toppled at the site of the new Adnoc building. After that we attended 59 fires in one month." In March this year, his team was called to support the Civil Defence at the scene of a huge fire in the industrial district of Al Quoz in Dubai, in which two people were killed and five injured after an explosion at a building containing illegal fireworks spread to more than 70 warehouses.

"We went twice to this mission, and the first time was for 22 hours. We sent 125 firefighters from here and Al Ain to Dubai, and even though it took one and a half hours to get there, we helped bring the fire under control." Frank Pohland, the trainer and temporary leader of Khalifa City fire station, is in charge of a fire crew of 72 Emiratis, 36 Turks and 14 Germans. Mr Pohland said that fires tended to be bigger in the UAE than in Germany because of the size of properties and the time it takes to reach the scene, and that more crew had to be used because of the heat. His fire station covers Abu Dhabi Airport, Dubai, Musaffah, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, but, Mr Pohland said, "A woman had a fire in a flat 500 metres down the road but it took 15 minutes to reach her because she didn't know where she was living."

Still, Mr Pohland, 32, has not been put off the task of establishing a new system. "We train and improve our skills every day except Friday. We look at how to ventilate a building and control smoke, and train Civil Defence units on new equipment and how to handle it. At the beginning people said there wasn't a problem because they had extinguished nearly every fire. But they quickly became convinced and are highly motivated."

And, despite the problems, there seem to be some positive benefits to living in the UAE when it comes to fire. According to Mr Wilkens, because people here live in larger units, fires are more easily spotted and communities help each other more. "When we go for a big fire in a villa I am always surprised when I find that no-one is injured," he said. "Usually the whole family is paying attention and looking after the women and children. With big families there is a strong chance that someone will see the fire, whereas in Europe more people live alone."

This was illustrated recently when an Abu Dhabi crew rescued 35 people from a single flat on the Meena road. "It took three telescopes to bring them down because the stairs were filled with smoke," Mr Graffunder said. "And you go in some flats here and they are so big you get lost in them. It's a totally different living style here, but it can be safer because more people are awake at different times."

It was a similar story at a fire at a semi-industrial complex in Musaffah in 2004. "There was some wind and an area 100 metres by 200 metres was burning," Mr Wilkens said. "The fire was breeding from company to company and a lot of people were living there in crowded rooms. Plastic cables and pipes were burning, there were some oil drums which moved 200 metres and gas bottles. It was amazing that no-one died or was injured."

Driving, however, is a different matter. "The speed between the signals is a big problem," Mr Wilkens said. "The speed limit can be 60 kph but people are driving at 130 or 140. If there is no crash it's OK, but if they crash, we have a lot of people who are dead. And on the motorway, cars are driving at 180 kph with one metre between them. In Germany you would lose your licence for this." In March this year, three people were killed and 277 injured in an early morning pileup in fog between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Mr Pohland said he was trying to promote common values between firemen of different nationalities. "Firefighters are all one family and we stand together. In Germany we refer to firefighters as fire-eaters. What most firefighters say is that they love to go with the first unit inside the building and extinguish the fire. Here you can see that the Emiratis love their job and are starting to see it as a mission for their own country."

The direct-yet-polite German approach to fire training seems to have been well-received. According to Mr Graffunder: "We can only make recommendations but it doesn't help if you're diplomatic. A fire is a fire. You can't ask your team if they feel like going in. There's no time for this. You have to be clear and know what you are doing."