x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Safety checks on UAE nurseries are stringent

Every centre has to pass tough annual safety tests before operating.

ABU DHABI// The nursery in Doha where 13 children died would probably not be licensed in the UAE.

Nurseries must obtain a municipality certificate approving their location, said Moza Al Shoomi, director of the Ministry of Social Affairs child department. They must also undergo yearly Civil Defence inspections to certify that their premises are safe.

Descriptions of the nursery in Doha suggest it was accessible only by a staircase near the centre of the Villaggio Mall. When the blaze broke out, firefighters had to break through the roof to reach people trapped inside.

Between 2000 and 2008, 27 children died in fires in the UAE but nothing like the Qatar tragedy has happened here, said Michal Grivna, an associate professor in United Arab Emirates University's Department of Community Medicine.

The legislation regulating UAE nurseries requires all facilities to be on the ground or first floor. Children younger than 18 months must be on the ground floor, Ms Al Shoomi said. The law also specifies that nursery buildings "should be equipped with firefighting equipment".

"We are not specialists in safety," Ms Al Shoomi said. "We leave that responsibility to Civil Defence."

Kieny Watts, the general manager of Hummingbird Early Learning Centre in Dubai, said: "I think if they have more stringent checks on all the nurseries on whether they have all these criteria — it's so important,"

Dubai also has a mall nursery: Crystal Valley Nursery, in Arabian Centre. But the facility has a direct exit to the outside, said Bernadette King-Turner, founder of Beautiful Minds Nurseries, a group of four nurseries.

"There's nothing wrong with having a nursery at a shopping mall," Ms King-Turner said. "But make sure it's at the exterior of the shopping mall — not the interior."

In case of emergencies, all nurseries should have a plan, according to Ministry of Social Affairs guidelines issued in 2010.

"We can evacuate 200 children in less than two minutes in Yellow Brick Road Nursery," Ms King-Turner said. "Parents would think, 'No way'. But we can. If we go over two minutes, I'm not happy."

Chantal Ariens, director of Blossom Children's Nursery in Dubai, said the Doha tragedy "gives me goose bumps". Ms Ariens conducts fire drills in her nursery "at least once a month", sometimes announcing them beforehand and sometimes making them a surprise.

Nurseries should explain to children why fire drills matter, Ms Ariens said. She uses a storybook called Miss Mingo and the Fire Drill. It is not difficult to evacuate children if they have practice, said Tracey Furey, chief executive of Bidayaat, a childcare development company that manages two nurseries.

In the Kensington Nursery in Dubai Silicon Oasis, children assemble into a line and hold on to a rope. "It's quite a good system for the younger ones, because it keeps them all on track," Ms Furey said.

Parents can also build children's awareness, said Badr Al Olama, chairman of Bidayaat. "Whether they're in a nursery or at home or in a mall, there are certain things they have to look for. They have to learn that there's an emergency exit, and what to do in an emergency."

A new collaboration between the Ministry of Social Affairs and Abu Dhabi Civil Defence is doing just that: teaching children about emergency protocol.

Firefighters visited Kids Academy Nursery in Khalifa City A this month and two staff members attended a Civil Defence training course, nursery director Samantha McClements said.

The programme is only in Abu Dhabi, but it could expand.

"If we get success in this project, next year we will try to make it in other emirates," Ms Al Shoomi said.

vnereim@thenational.ae