Roundtable: experts debate the UAE Fire and Safety code
The updated UAE Fire and Life Safety Code was unveiled at the Intersec 2017 exhibition, held in January this year in Dubai.
Lt Taher Hassan Altaher, head of DCD’s inspection and permitting section, had said that the 1,384-page code – 677 pages longer than its 2011 version – has been prepared based on international references and feedback from consultants, contractors, and local property developers such as Emaar and Deyaar.
Despite the announcement of an updated code four months back, there is just one element missing: the code itself or rather a published version of it. Although, there are unofficial versions available, contractors, consultants, and manufacturers still express ambiguity in understanding the code in its entirely.
MEP Middle East organised a roundtable to address these issues and to talk about fire and safety in general. Thiru S, divisional manager, TransPro System part of Trans Gulf Electromechanical, said that the code has almost doubled in terms of pages. And that the updated code is going to reduce the fire risk in buildings. He said: “The updated code is definitely going to help reduce fire accidents and there is going to be more accountability. In terms of who is responsible for the fire, what they could have done. Accountability is actually a vague thing, whenever there is a fire accident. Now, there is a separate chapter [in the code], which is Chapter 8; I think they have come up with a stakeholder’s responsibility.”
Prodding more on the subject of accountability, Thiru S stated: “It actually puts pressure on the stakeholders, starting from the owners or developers. There are separate pages for each of them citing their responsibilities. But when it comes to fire, companies have a house of expertise. WSP, for example, if it is confirmed for a project, it will have a fire engineer onboard for a specific job. Apart from that, the owner or the client can also apply for a house of expertise. They can look at the design, verify the design, inspect the insulation, and supervise the insulation.”
At this point, Robert Davies, head of fire & life safety, WSP, jumped in and added that there is still a gap in the whole process of accountability. He said: “It’s not about a new code or more documentation. There’s plenty of information out there on how to do things, with proper guidance and illustration. What matters is the enforcement of it. As a fire consultant, we can do a design and hand it over. What happens on site, what happens from an operational point of view is out of our hands, unfortunately. The idea behind accountability is try to solve that enforcement issue. That’s the threat that’s still missing in the process. That’s what that new chapter is designed to try and do; to make sure that people involved in the process from the designer to the contractor to the operator are accountable.”
Devil lies in the design
Gary Walton, managing director, JPW Consulting Group, added to the conversation by saying that the difficulty is in policing from the design right through to commissioning. “Making sure all of those steps are done correctly, does not happen, unfortunately,” Walton said. “It starts off with good design, good contractor, and then somewhere on that route it’s unclear. If we put responsibility on each of those steps, then it is possible for accountability to work.”
Dipak Jain, head of engineering & procurement, Trans Gulf Electromechanical, chimed in by agreeing. He added by saying that everything starts with good design. But at times designs were approved without due diligence. He said: “This is where the problem lies. We can have as many as codes as we want. But they are not honestly implemented, due diligently. The MEP consultants supervises the job. But do we have any fire specialists? And this chapter [referring to Chapter 8], what I understood from it is that it precisely defines the pump selection and everything in the new code. They have very precisely defined for which building what size pump you need. But how honestly it is implemented? That is the question.”
Almost everybody agreed that all issues can be pre-empted with good design. And a good design can come from a consultant. Davies admited that it does sound ideal but there is certainly a lack of time to design. Walton added: “The secret is in planning. Lots of planning. You can spend another four months planning and save yourself six months again. Planning well and then implementing the project would be wise.”
There was unanimous agreement that proper oversight, expertise, and design are some factors that can improve fire safety.
The code and value engineering
Gaurav Bhatnagar, head sales and marketing Middle East and Africa, Armacell, gave his views on the code itself. He said: “As far as the UAE Civil Defence code is concerned, I think that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are too many standards across the world, which are complementary to the standard itself. Like they use NFPA (National Fire Prevention Association), ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), etc. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel over here. However, the local regulations are quite important in terms of having everyone on board on the same table. That is what was missing on the last code. And I think that it has been corrected to some extent, but it will never be corrected to a complete extent. Now as far as design is concerned, it can be a very high-specification. However, it is also limited to the budget. For example, if a G+20 has to be constructed and the client is standing on a backlog, he has a set of specifications drawn from a consultant.
“Now if you do value engineering, and select the product, you will do it at the least cost, and it has to be specified by the consultant. If it is meeting the specifications, and it is at the least cost, you would select that product and put it in your installation. It is not on your portfolio to design a system or select a product based upon the performance of the product itself. It is based upon some specifications or guiding specifications that were globally regulated. Now what happens on the manufacturing side is that in the name of value engineering, the whole purpose is lost. The basic idea of value engineering was to optimise output with the performance cost.”
He also added that there is a mismatch between the local and global standards. He said: “In my case, in terms of insulation, the WSP specifications would call for British standards, which is also a part of the overall perspective. However, the local regulatory UAE Fire Code calls for ASTM. This is the mismatch that is there.”
It’s about budget
Anchoring on Bhatnagar’s point about budget, Thiru S said, “All boils down to budget again. What I have seen is the maintenance contractor going to a building and check all maintenance and fire safety issues in a building. And then another guy will come and give you a price of 3000 dirhams for four visits. This is a problem.”
Davies added that they have faced similar issues. “We approached a location for a fire assessment. Let’s say we were around 200,000 dirhams to do the full fire risk assessment. We lost it to somebody who quoted 20,000 to do every single building. What sort of inspection do you think they do? As they are driving past?” he jokingly asked.
Davies remarked: “There is a section in the code talking about accountability, but there’s no proper enforcement, no fines, no threat of jail sentences.”
Walton said that the credentials of the inspector also need to be important. “The inspector needs to be someone with a lot of experience and not the office boy or anybody random. It needs to be guys who’ve got experience and who have actually checked ducts, etc., and know what to look for. If you come up with a checklist, he can do it, but he still needs the experience. You can’t do a checklist without knowing what the checklist means.”
Bhatnagar said that it is a very cut-throat world that we all live in. “Everyone is cutting corners. Everyone is compromising on something. In our case, as a manufacturer, if I have to govern my product as per specifications, I have to drive it within the organisation, within each and every person in the organisation, as a process, and on a personal level too. If you say that the product should qualify for ASTM E84, I have to make sure that in my manufacturing process, the product, which comes to the site, is of ASTM e84 standard.”
Jain said that it’s not just about the cost or a good product. “The problem is in the behaviour. The person who is installing, is he installing correctly what he has being given?” he asked, giving an example. “Take the example of a grill. The grill is perfect but it is not installed properly. Cost is one factor, but if you are not appointing the right kind of people for the job, then it is an issue.”
The issue of over-engineering
So does over-engineering ensure the safety of a building? Bhatnagar replied: “As far as over-engineering is concerned, there is too much content available in the market from the developed nations or the developed economies in terms of regulations and standards. And we are just adhering to the best possible solution. If I do over-engineering and supply a product that isn’t commercially viable or is over-specified for the building, it doesn’t serve the purpose. Over-engineering would be over-specifying. If I over-specify in terms of a particular product, I am absolutely increasing the commercial value of the project itself. At least, I know in terms of UAE, the best standards, the best specifications are available for us to apply. It is the manufacturer’s social responsibility to adhere to those specifications and give a right product.”
Thiru S added: “In terms of fire, over-designing is not at all advisable for any project; it shoul the optimum design and the right product for the right application.”
Davies concluded, talking about the code: “The whole idea of my role is to meet the requirements. The need for prescriptive requirements here is because of the lack of knowledge, education, and responsibility. The positive change in this code, and in the original 2011 version, was that they were very black and white. As an engineer, I am thinking that ‘well, this is ridiculous’, but to take it from the Civil Defence’s perspective, they are grabbing the market, saying ‘okay, look, you know it, but somebody else clearly doesn’t. Here’s the set of straightforward rules you follow’. It is exactly right for this market. Black and white set of rules, that’s what you do.”
A brief profile of the industry leaders at the roundtable
Robert Davies, Head of fire & life safety, WSP Middle East
Robert Davies has over 15 years’ experience in the field of fire safety engineering. Since graduating with a fire safety degree from the University of Central Lancashire, he has undertaken a variety of roles within the fire safety industry. In this role at WSP, in addition to undertaking design work and leading projects as a project director, Davies has been instrumental in growing and developing the team from four to 40 engineers.
Thiru S, Divisional manager, TransPro System, part of Trans Gulf Electromechanical
A professional with 27 years of experience, Thiru S knows how to succeed through planning, monitoring, prioritising, and developing his employees. He possesses a range of specialist skills that provide his company with new strategic thinking. Thiru S joined Trans Gulf in March 2016 to form the civil defence division. He has extensive experience in fire detection, fire protection, and operations.
Gary Walton, Managing director, JPW Consulting Group
Gary Walton has held directorships and senior engineering positions for both consultants and contractors in the Middle East and the United Kingdom. Walton has spent over 12 years working in the Middle East, including handling projects in Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE.
Walton is the managing director for JPW Consulting Group and is responsible for all its assignments in the UAE and MENA region.
Walton has extensive practical experience in the design and implementation of critical environment systems, in conjunction with electronic control and data acquisition (BMS, iBMS, CAFM, Fire Detection & Security). He has experience in hospitals/healthcare, air traffic environments, data centres, high rise and clean/sterile environments.
Gary has spent over 12 years working in the Middle East, including projects in Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE, where he was responsible for providing consultancy services to major developers and clients with particular emphasis on sustainable design, the reduction in energy and water consumption and the sustainable management of waste.
Gaurav Bhatnagar, Head sales and marketing Middle East and Africa, Armacell
Gaurav Bhatnagar has a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, with over 21+ years of progressive experience in multi-national companies in India and the Middle East. He is heading sales and marketing for Armacell Middle East and Africa. His current responsibilities include developing annual sales and marketing strategic business plans to drive revenue and increase market share, assessing market potential, and identifying new business opportunities.
Dipak Jain, Head of engineering & procurement, Trans Gulf Electromechanical
Dipak Jain is an experienced head of engineering & procurement with extensive knowledge on the execution of MEP works for various projects in the following sectors:
Industrial sector: airports, hospitals, district cooling plants, stadium, hotels
Buildings sector: residential buildings (villas & multi-storey), office buildings (towers), hotel apartments & buildings (towers), shopping malls, medical centres [assistance].
Jain has a Bachelor’s degree in technology (mechanical).
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