x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fire-safety code is a work in progress

Events keep teaching us new lessons about how to be safe from fires. We have to keep trying to do better.

Safety is never absolute; the world is too complicated and unpredictable for that. But well-ordered societies keep trying to reduce the risk from natural disaster and accidents.

It's a never-ending job, one that requires first prudent rule-making and then careful enforcement of those rules.

In July of 2011, the UAE adopted a Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice that includes safety requirements for buildings. Among other rules - minimum width for public stairwells, for example - the code identifies acceptable construction materials.

As The Nationalreported yesterday, aluminium exterior panels with plastic cores now face rigorous new tests that could lead to tighter rules. This reassessment seems obvious after a series of fires in which such panels were seen to be aflame. Hundreds of people were burnt out of Dubai's Tamweel Towers last week and two other recent fires, one in Sharjah and one in Dubai, also displayed this phenomenon.

Constant revision of safety rules in the light of changing experience is half the battle in fire safety. Successive versions of the UAE code, based in part on similar requirements in the US and UK, appear to have served the country well: evacuation and rehousing of tenants is a considerable annoyance. But this week's headlines from Dhaka, where over 100 died in one factory fire and another fire was reported yesterday, is a reminder of how much worse fire-safety standards can be.

While the constant need to update the rules is half the battle, the other half is enforcement. In Doha last May, 13 children and six adults died in a fire at a childcare centre; the problem was traced to faulty wiring, which had evidently not been properly inspected; officials are still trying to sort out criminal responsibility, if any.

Rigorous testing of materials, incessant compliance reviews and inspections to prevent problems such as blocked staircases are all easier to call for than to perform. Some people propose that inspectors should be required to identify danger spots on a quota system, but this can lead to arbitrary accusations not linked to the facts.

A better approach is for officials, from the top down, to make sure that inspectors are numerous, well-trained and efficiently used - and, of course, fair and respectful in their work. The need for safety never ends.