x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Fire chiefs warn of site hazards

Civil defence officials say they are unable to monitor all the capital's construction projects.

Smoke billows from a fire in a building under construction on Al Reem Island  in the capital in October.
Smoke billows from a fire in a building under construction on Al Reem Island in the capital in October.

ABU DHABI // Civil defence officials have said they are unable to monitor all the capital's construction projects, leading to the widespread use of unsafe building materials, In addition to having too few inspectors, there is no system for testing or approving building materials, officials said, meaning many developers are left to police themselves.

"There is no way that we can make sure that none of the construction projects in Abu Dhabi is using dangerous or illegal building materials, simply because the number of civil defence officials is very few compared to the number of construction projects in the emirate," said Emad al Hashemi, the head of fire safety at Abu Dhabi Civil Defence. "Therefore, we usually contact the big developers, such as Aldar, and ask them to report any problems or violations they find."

As an example of unsafe materials, Mr Hashemi cited the highly flammable polyurethane filters that are often used in industrial air conditioners. They can be upgraded to be more fire-resistant, but developers often skip that step for cost and time reasons. Some types of plastic pipes are potentially hazardous in fires, but are permitted for use here in limited quantities, he said. Contractors are only allowed to have as many pipes on site as they need for a day's work.

However, because it is inconvenient to go to a materials depot every day, he added, they keep large amounts on site, which could be hazardous during a fire. The recent fire that erupted in a Reem Island skyscraper was attributed to explosive substances stored there during construction. Freddy Lama, a mechanical engineer at NOVA Electromechanical Contracting Company, agreed that "unsafe" materials were being sold in the emirate and little was done to curb their use.

He gave the example of polyiso-cyanurate, an improvement on polyurethane also known as PIR, which is often used in air conditioning systems. In Europe and Australia, PIR is used to insulate walls and roofs. However, because it is highly flammable, codes require it to be covered with plaster or metal. In conventional air conditioners, Mr Lama suggested it was possible to use galvanised sheet metal to distribute the air in the place of PIR. In the US, high-density fibreglass, which does not burn and is non-toxic, is used.

"In recent years and in Dubai in particular, the smooth boards that constitute the PIR material are being used instead of the galvanised ductwork," he said in an e-mail. Because it is much cheaper, the material has found its way into the local markets. But in the event of a fire, some of the gases released by the burning PIR are deadly, Mr Lama added. Highly flammable building materials are illegal but their use is difficult to enforce, Mr al Hashemi said. "Those who are selling [such dangerous materials], we cannot catch them, because the market is open," he said.

Civil defence officials said materials codes would be introduced next year, based on the National Fire Protection Association 5000 building and construction code system. "When we do inspections and catch anything, first we give them a primary warning; if it repeats we send them an official warning," Mr al Hashemi said. "The third step is filing a report against them at the prosecution. Sometimes when the violations are very serious we file the report immediately."

In the UAE, civil defence departments are supposed to approve materials only if they are compliant with international safety standards. The law, however, is mostly enforced during inspection campaigns usually following recurring incidents of fire in a certain area. Dubai Civil Defence has a procedure in place to ensure that any building materials, fire safety equipment or devices comply with international standards. The emirate requires fire-resistant materials to be tested and registered.

Only products registered with civil defence are permitted. Furthermore, material suppliers must be locally owned and registered with the Civil Defence. Once any of the materials are installed, Civil Defence officials inspect the building and compare the supplies to the test certificate. While negligence is often perceived as the cause of fires, Afschin Soleimani, the associate director and fire engineer at the consulting firm Ramboll, said he believed otherwise. "When it comes to the installation of safety equipment and systems or application of fireproof material, it is important to follow a prescribed procedure and that the person in charge of the application is trained in the application procedure."

A lack of knowledge about flammable chemicals in the wrong places often leads to fires as well. "Many fires start as a result of poor housekeeping or building management," he said. Random inspections on a daily basis, according to Mr Soleimani, would eliminate some risks. @Email:hhassan@thenational.ae hdajani@thenational.ae