The UAE's malls are among the safest in the world but they will undergo new scrutiny following the tragedy in Doha.
UAE mall safety to be scrutinised following Doha tragedy
ABU DHABI // Strict fire regulations and frequent inspections make the UAE's shopping malls among the safest in the world, but they will undergo new scrutiny following the tragedy in Doha.
"This Qatar experience will result in major changes," said Barry Bell, the managing director of Wagner Fire Safety Management Consultants in Dubai and a fire engineer with more than 30 years' experience.
"Everyone will be eager to criticise, but you can never say never. Every time something horrific happens, we learn from it, and we make improvements."
All malls in the UAE are subject to annual inspection and certification. Equipment is regularly maintained, with fire extinguishers replaced every six months in most malls and sprinkler and smoke-detector systems checked monthly.
Malls that break the rules first receive a warning, then a penalty from Civil Defence.
"We don't compromise on safety," said Munther Asad, the head of facilities management at Marina Mall.
"In every store, employees are trained on the evacuation plan. They have fire extinguishers, and they participate in fire drills."
Abdulaziz Zurub, director of health and safety at the municipality, said malls were regulated by Civil Defence and the municipality from the design and construction phase. Twice-yearly fire drills are the minimum.
"Once the building becomes operational, the security team is tested with drills and exercises," Mr Zurub said.
"By doing this, we will ensure that we are 100 per cent ready."
Security and management personnel said no emergency procedures or extra precautions were implemented after the Doha fire, because regular maintenance is already part of the normal routine.
Yazid Makhloufi, the property manager for Colliers International, which manages Al Ghazal Mall in Dubai, said the mall's most recent fire drill was held on March 28.
"After the last one we realised that we needed more people trained in the procedure, so we have now trained up our cleaners as well as security," he said.
"The key thing is for people not to panic, and the best way to do that is to make sure enough people are trained and know what they are doing."
Fire-safety experts and mall managers say the UAE has invested in top-of-the-line fire-prevention and detection programmes, but technology matters less than education and training.
"If all the items work, all the alarms and smoke detectors and sprinklers and smoke extractors, it is a bonus," Mr Bell said. "We design our evacuation plan to work even when the other elements fail."
Mohammed Nauman Thakur, the general manager of Al Wahda Mall, said there had been some small fires there over the years, but they were quickly extinguished by trained staff. "Malfunctions can happen any time, but to minimise that, you must have a back-up plan," he said.
Public spaces like shopping malls are regulated by the Fire and Life Safety code, which is based on international standards. Fire engineers, Civil Defence and municipalities work together to ensure older buildings also continue to meet new standards.
At Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi, for example, exit signs were improved last year to meet new recommendations.
"I think we are well prepared, theoretically and practically," Mr Bell said. "We've done quite a lot to maintain the highest level of safety."
Kamal Saleh, a trainer and health and safety consultant at the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety, said property managers should not rely only on the authorities to provide safety training and regular audits.
"Owners need to be the ones to order more inspections than required and make sure the equipment is up to date," he said.
"There may be a fire extinguisher there, but is it full? Does the employee know how to use it?"