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Sparking accountability: the UAE's new fire code

The new UAE fire and life safety code is expected to be released on January 22 – but it will not be retrospective.

Considering that upgrading the code was made more urgent by the alarming string of fires in existing residential buildings and the realisation that more than 1,000 buildings in the UAE still have a form of external cladding that is at high risk of rapidly spreading flames in the event of a fire, it is remarkable that older buildings will not be forced to be upgraded for the safety of everyone inside.

It is unfortunate that it took the destruction of a high profile building – The Address Downtown Dubai, opposite the Burj Khalifa – on an evening when Dubai planned to attract global attention for its dazzling New Year’s Eve show to drive regulators to improve the fire safety standard code.

A fire at the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in November 2012, was a missed opportunity to conduct a review. Residents still have not been able to move back in after years of wrangling over insurance, which prevented work to fix the building from starting until three years after the fire.

The new fire and life safety code must address two important issues that arose from the Tamweel Tower fire. The first is accountability. Whenever something important needs to be done, it is more likely to be done and done well if someone is held accountable. In this case, accountability should be for both preventing a fire and/or responding to any fire that does occur.

That person could be the building manager, the developer, individual property owners, fire safety inspectors or another person/people whom authorities deem appropriate. That person/people need not necessarily be financially accountable, but could face civil or criminal charges.

A lack of clear accountability contributed to delays in repairing the Tamweel Tower. The fire spread when a cigarette butt ignited a pile of rubbish left outside the building by contractors that had been working there, according to a Dubai Police forensic report. Who was to blame – the person who littered the cigarette butt, the contractors or the building maintenance people who did not assess the risk and remove the rubbish?

While the new code will not be retrospective, by making someone accountable changes to existing buildings may be more likely to be done anyway. And even without physical asset improvements, new systems and technology could prevent a fire or ensure greater levels of safety if there is a blaze.

The second issue to be addressed is insurance. As evidenced by the Tamweel Tower debacle, there needs to be clearer standards to determine what exactly an insurance company is liable to fix after a fire to avoid delays and save owners thousands of dollars.

The modernised fire safety code will spur new business opportunities – including around fire safety inspection, technologically-advanced building materials (Sharjah-based Alubond USA started manufacturing fire-resistant panels a few months after the fire at The Address), and smart fire monitoring and alarm systems.

Without applying retrospectively, the new standards also have the potential to affect property prices: buildings, whether new or re-furbished, with better fire protection will be able to attract a premium. Buildings that still have aluminium cladding filled with highly flammable low-density polythene will incur higher maintenance costs in attempts to reduce the greater likelihood of a serious fire.

So whether or not existing buildings are re-fitted, as long as the new code clearly holds someone accountable for preventing a fire and the response to any blaze, people in the UAE should be safer.

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