x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Window rules are 'crucial step' in preventing tower falls

Experts say move to make protective devices on windows and balconies compulsory is just a first step towards child safety after spate of fatal tower falls.

New municipal guidelines give building owners six months to install protective devices on windows to improve safety.
New municipal guidelines give building owners six months to install protective devices on windows to improve safety.

ABU DHABI // New rules ordering property owners to place protective devices on windows and balconies are a "first step" towards child safety after a spate of fatal falls, experts said yesterday.

"It followed a course of unfortunate events and maybe it should be done even sooner, but thank God that at least now it will be in place," said Michal Grivna, the associate professor at UAE University's department of community medicine.

Many children and adults have died after falling from towers across the country. The issue drew great attention in December after four falls in two weeks in Sharjah.

The rules were issued last week by the Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA). Owners and property-management companies in the emirate have six months to install devices that stop windows opening wider than 10 centimetres.

"That's an excellent first step," said Samia Kazi, the chief operating officer of Arabian Child, a consultancy for issues involving young children.

When a three-year-old girl died after falling from a balcony on Airport Road last month, Arabian Child launched an awareness campaign about home safety.

"Remember screens are not enough - screens are not for safety - and to take the step and ask the landlord for window guards," Ms Kazi said. "Cut the cords short on windows … and move the furniture away from windows … windows are really just part of it. There's a bunch of other things."

Dr Grivna said parents should take first-aid courses, while Ms Kazi said they should search for hazards in their building's entry system, corridors and storage areas.

"Also, kitchen safety is a big, important issue," Ms Kazi said. "What we love most is the part where you sit down with your child. And it's not a one-time lecture thing that you give to your children, but it's an ongoing conversation."

But parents cannot be solely responsible, said Dr Grivna.

"It is also the responsibility of the municipality, of the construction company, the architects and so on," he said.

Some research shows the safest window opening is 7cm at most, Dr Grivna added. "Around 10cm, already some children can squeeze."

The DMA decision means all owners of residential buildings should provide "proper means of protection" for balconies, windows or openings that lead outside.

Renters are entitled to file complaints if their building owner or management company does not respond to their request for devices, and Civil Defence will conduct regular inspections to ensure landlords comply, the rules say.

Windows higher than 1.5metres from the floor are exempt, as are one-storey residential villas with windows less than 1.8 metres from the ground. Last week, Sharjah also issued rules to make balconies and windows safer.

Fewer incidents have been reported in Abu Dhabi. But as well as the death last month, a three-year-old boy died after falling from a Khalidiya flat in 2010 and a girl, 5, fell to her death in Al Ain in 2008.

A mother who moved to Abu Dhabi a few days ago said she was shocked to discover the windows in her hotel apartment opened easily.

"The whole wall is windows," said Johanna Halava, 37, from Finland, the mother of a 30-month-old boy. "And if he climbs to a sofa, he can open the window."

Taisser Agag, a construction safety officer who has a daughter aged 5, said windows should lock and be too high for children to reach and too heavy for them to open.

But Jacqueline Holzl, 33, from Ireland, said it was difficult to find safety latches.

"I've got a two-and-a-half-year-old son and it makes me cringe every time I see balconies and kids hanging around," she said.

vnereim@thenational.ae