Learning from Oasis blaze with new fire-control plans

With the now infamous fire a month ago at the Oasis Shopping Mall in Dubai, fire safety has been the latest concern of the construction industry. Zoe Naylor explores the most recent changes to fire-safety codes in the GCC and looks at the importance of using high flame-retardant fabrics in new buildings.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  October 15, 2005

the recent oasis shopping mall fire has highlighted the need to increase fire-safety awareness on sites|~|91prod200.gif|~|Fire in the Oasis: The blaze is thought to have got into the foam insulation material and subsequently ripped through the entire shopping mall. “One of the dangers is not being able to see the fire spread, as it moves through the actual fabric of the building,” says Martin Kealy. |~|The recent fire in the Oasis shopping centre on the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai brought into sharp focus the issue of fire safety in public spaces. The rapid turnaround of large-scale construction projects, coupled with the trend for building high-rise towers, has prompted speculation that it may be time to review the region’s fire strategies. Martin Kealy heads up Schirmer Engineering’s fire engineering team in the UAE. He says one of the problems lies with inadequate fire codes. “The original codes written by Dubai Municipality are no longer suitable, except perhaps for single or two-storey houses, or the sort of projects that you would have had here 20 years ago,” says Kealy. “Try to build a shopping mall, stadium or high-rise office to the local Dubai codes and it will be virtually impossible since you’ll end up with staircases everywhere; the design will be very poor,” he adds. To counter this, the authorities in Dubai have decided to opt for internationally recognised codes and use versions from the US and UK. “Our US-based staff write the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) codes that are now widely used in the GCC countries. When we do work in the GCC region we see probably 90% of the projects using US codes,” says Kealy. The authorities in the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar recently decided the time was right to design bespoke fire codes for the Gulf region — the result is a series of new guides known as the GCC code. But so far, Kealy says, very few people in the industry have been able to gauge its usefulness. “We have a copy of the new code but at the moment it’s written only in Arabic. A large percentage of the architects and engineers working in the region are American, British and Australian, and most of them can’t use Arabic-written design guides. We hope that the local authorities have taken into consideration what the NFPA has said and incorporated its recommendations into the new codes. Hopefully in a few years’ time we’ll see a version written in English.” Another important factor to take into consideration when designing buildings with fire safety in mind is the type of textiles used inside. The interior furnishings in public buildings not only need to be robust, they need a maximum flame-retardant (FR) value. This is where permanently flame-retardant polyester fibres come in. Instead of being treated with a surface flame-retardant chemical, the flame-retardant properties are permanently built into the molecular chain of the fibre and cannot be removed. This means the entire raw material is inherently flame-retardant as opposed to just the top layer (as is the case with surface or topically treated fabrics). The FR performance therefore cannot wear or wash off and there is no danger of toxic fumes in the event of a fire. The flame-retardant properties are permanent and last over the lifetime of the fabric. Flame retardant fabrics such as Trevira CS can help minimise risks and protect against fire. Made from polyester fibres and filament yarns, its flame retardant properties meet international fire safety standards and can be used for a variety of interior furnishings such as curtains, blinds and upholstery fabrics. Another safety issue that Kealy says needs to be addressed —and one that may have exacerbated the Oasis mall blaze — is fire insulation material. “No one’s precisely sure what happened with the Oasis fire but it looks like the fire got into foam insulation material during a construction/redevelopment programme, and it subsequently ripped through the building,” he says. One of the biggest dangers is not being able to see the fire spreading since it moves through the actual fabric of the building. In the case of the Oasis blaze, the sprinklers were actually below the fire and so they couldn’t see the flames until it was too late and the system was overwhelmed. “While foam insulation may meet safety standards, once the fire gets into the inside of the steel it can rip through a building and quickly reduce it to ashes,” says Kealy. Schirmer Engineering is now recommending its clients to change from PUR (polyurethanes) panels to PIR (polyisocyanurates) panels. Insulation materials are often highly flammable and therefore have the potential to accelerate the development of a fire in a building. However there are some materials which, although combustible, are relatively difficult to ignite. The main difference between PUR and PIR foams is the higher temperature at which PIR degradation begins. Another characteristic is that when burnt, PIR foam forms a surface char — similar to wood — which can help to insulate the underlying foam from the blaze. “It is a bit more expensive to use the PIR panels, perhaps US $2.7 (AED10) per m2 more,” says Kealy. He also adds that simply changing to PIR is not the sole solution — it should be part of an overall fire risk assessment and needs to take into account the actual building design, as well as additional fire protection measures. “But it does go a long way towards helping,” he says.||**||

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