Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Small ideas can go a long way to protect victims of building fires

Maryam Ismail suggests plans be made for how to respond to residents made homeless by high-rise fires in the UAE.
Fire engulfs a residential tower in Ajman  on March 29. AFP
Fire engulfs a residential tower in Ajman on March 29. AFP

The news of the fire in the Ajman One tower complex came to our Whatsapp group about 9.30pm, when two friends sent pictures taken from their windows.

Those pictures were of a single flat and I was getting anxious when I found out my friend and her two small children were inside. As I was checking my phone for updates, a message came. It read: “It started on the fourth floor a while ago.” The next one was: “I see people going up and coming back with small suitcases. What happened to fire safety basics?” The following one was even more terrifying: “We are in the first parking lot and one of the exits is full of flames.” Our group began to panic. “What?” Silence. I couldn’t wait. I called. Thankfully, they were OK.

I was receiving images and videos in which I could see the glass-and-steel structure being engulfed in a fire that rose higher and higher. I remembered the 1974 disaster film, The Towering Inferno, in which a fire breaks out on the 81st floor of a building. The fire chief tells the building’s architect: “You know we can’t handle anything higher than the seventh floor, yet you architects seem to keep building them higher and higher.”

The watchman had a list of all the residents to give to the fire chief. The film shows how difficult it is to prepare for such incidents. Yet, preparedness goes a long way in tackling such eventualities.

As one woman tweeted during the Ajman fire: “My home is up in flames. I’ve lost everything.” Although her attitude seemed to be nonchalant, I felt sorry for her. I called up some hotels to check if I could help her to find a place to stay at a reasonable price, so that she wouldn’t have to live on the street. I found some listings on booking.com. The prices ranged between Dh250 and Dh400 per night.

“Our room is Dh1,200,”said the receptionist of one of those hotels. I’ve stayed at this hotel before; it’s a three-star. I hung up frustrated and angry. At that moment I thought that I had some coupons that could come in handy.

It then struck me that the problem of people becoming homeless in such incidents could probably be more easily resolved with a coupon system. The moment a fire breaks out, the ball should start rolling. The first thing to do is to check the list of residents.

It seems to be a lot of work, but in cases such as these where the buildings are tall and materials flammable, it should be the responsibility of the owners and/or the maintenance companies to do their due diligence and ensure the residents are safe.

Meanwhile, charities can do what booking.com does. That is, they can buy a number of rooms from a hotel and sell them at prices that are lower than regular prices. They can do this via a public-private partnership, one in which building rent collectors or owners could chip in as well. This does not mean keeping the hotel rooms empty for such eventualities. They can be rented out anyway and the profits can be used to pay for staff and help families get back on their feet. Although the Government offers its help, many people seem to miss out.

There is always talk about corporate social responsibility. This is something that can take the idea beyond shoebox and water campaigns. They are fine, but more money and manpower are needed to help those in such desperate conditions.

For example, three families affected by the Ajman One tower fire included eight children. They came down to stay in a friend’s two-bedroom flat. There were also families sleeping in their cars.

The moment a fire breaks out, someone should reach the spot to inform victims about options of accommodation. There could also be a system whereby the building management or owners can keep tenants informed through text messages about alternative accommodation in case of an emergency.

We should also keep the most important things in one place, so that if a fire breaks out we can save those things. Such actions will save a lot of the time and effort of civil defence personnel.

Why not also have a fire victims fund taken from zakat and other charitable donations? I have seen collectors giving options to donors on where they want their money to go, such as medical expenses, education, building mosques, and so on. Perhaps it’s time to add fire victims to the list. No one ever thinks that they would have to run out of their burning residence, but it’s great to know that help will be there if such a situation arises.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Updated: April 2, 2016 04:00 AM

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