x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Fire safety starts with safe materials

Seventy-five per cent of high-rise buildings are made of combustible materials. Such an oversight is inexcusable in a country where the highest standards of architecture are applied.

Don't smoke in bed. Buy a smoke detector. Plan an escape route. Consider a safety ladder. When it comes to fire safety, personal choice and preparation are keys to reducing the risk. But for the most part, we leave the issue of fireproofing infrastructure and protecting buildings to the experts - inspectors, builders, regulators, landlords and owners.

But as The National reported yesterday, in an estimated two thirds of high-rise towers across the UAE, the "experts" are not living up to their responsibility. And the public may be worse off for it.

The problem, fire consultants say, is that builders and contractors are continuing to use materials that have been banned in other countries but are readily available here. In particular, combustible cladding that ignites easily and is hard to extinguish remains popular despite the clear danger. As the consultant Thomas Bell-Wright said: "Companies that manufacture this cladding know that a version of it is combustible and yet they still sell it in the UAE."

Price does not seem to be the motivating factor in such decisions, experts say. Rather, these are simply the materials that are available on the market.

Companies might know better, but contractors, builders and regulators are the one responsible for keeping the public safe. There is simply no good reason why high-rises in the UAE would showcase anything but the safest material available. In the case of combustible cladding, the UK discovered that plastic-core sheeting was dangerous in the 1980s. Why not here?

This problem, of course, extends to more than just fire-resistant buildings. Too often unsafe consumer or industrial products, banned or restricted in other parts of the world, find a willing customer base here. Dangerous pesticides, unregulated sports drinks, unhealthy food that is poorly labelled - these are all too common.

Building a safer society involves the ability to monitor dangerous products, and ban those items that pose a threat to safety and health. Fire codes and consumer regulations are keys to protecting the public. But ensuring compliance will always be a work in progress.