With the summer temperatures reaching a sweltering 50 degrees Celsius, the risk of a fire rises as millions of air-conditioning units are switched on to maximum, threatening to overheat. According to the experts, the cause of most fires in the GCC region is electrical failure, mostly in residential buildings and vehicles. Fire safety infrastructure is a huge challenge in the Gulf, as in many cases it has not kept pace with the rapid development of cities across the region.
With so many buildings exceeding 20 stories, particularly in Doha and Dubai, and with fire-related incidents in high-rises, the question of fire safety improvement is a crucial one. According to Mark Fenton, business leader at Honeywell Fire Safety Middle East and Africa, the fire safety standards in the Middle East and in the GCC have changed over the years. “Fire safety has improved markedly in the GCC over the past 10 to 15 years. US safety standards are applied and adhered to for fire safety system designs, while EU standards are in place to regulate fire safety products,” says Fenton.
Incidents are common
According to last year’s report by global analyst Frost and Sullivan, the region’s fire safety systems market, worth USD 1.2 billion in 2013, is expected to grow at a rate of 14.4 percent up to 2018. Fire detection accounts for 33.1 percent of the overall GCC fire safety systems market and is estimated to grow at a rate of 14.6 percent, while fire suppression accounts for 66.9 percent of the overall market and is estimated to experience a growth rate of 14.3 percent between 2014 and 2018.
But despite the greater fire risk awareness and the state-of-the-art equipment in new buildings, serious fire incidents are more than common across the Gulf area. Some recent fires include an illegal workers accommodation in Abu Dhabi where 10 people died; a flat in Riyadh where five people died; the 77-storey Marina Pinnacle skyscraper in Dubai; one at the world’s tallest residential buildings – Dubai’s Torch Tower; a construction site on Abu Dhabi’s Al Reem Island; a villa compound in Doha, the Qatar Foundation; a car graveyard in Jeddah; a vehicle fire at Dubai petrol station; as well as one in Muscat.
According to Honeywell’s survey that was carried out on more than 2,600 GCC residents, more than 53 percent were unaware of the need to test fire safety equipment, while 48 percent had never taken part in a fire drill. Moreover, 28 percent of GCC residents regularly ignore fire alarms assuming it is a false emergency and 28 percent claim they do not know where their building’s fire exit is, showing a significant lack of fire safety awareness, showed the survey of the leading company in fire systems, smoke and gas detection.
These findings are more than alarming, especially when bearing in mind that most fires are caused by negligence, high temperatures and lack of knowledge on preventive measures.
“There are four key areas where most fires occur: construction sites, modern residential towers, older residential buildings and industrial areas,” says Fenton, adding that old residential buildings are particularly vulnerable because of poor maintenance, especially of electrical installations.
“A general issue in the fire safety field is electrical safety. Buildings can sometimes be packed with too many people, and in summer months, when everybody is turning their cooling devices on, the electrical system is not able to take the load, and that leads to overheating and in the worst case scenario, a fire,” says Fenton. However, he explains, the majority of high-rise buildings are designed to withstand blazes. “Most fires that occur in skyscrapers look bad from the outside with flames blazing over the façade, but on the inside damage is usually kept to a minimum with sprinklers which effectively extinguish flames.”
That was also the case with the February fire at the Torch Tower located at Dubai Marina, where interior fire damage was minimal, and most of the residents returned to their homes in a few days. The question the incident raised, however, was of how flammable buildings’ exterior cladding is. In Dubai, after the 2012 fire at the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT), the Fire and Safety Code was updated, requiring that exterior cladding be fire-resistant on all new buildings over 15 metres tall.
One recently published study examined fire incidents in Dubai which were reported to the Forensic and Mechanical Engineering section of the Dubai Police Forensic Laboratory during 2006–2013. The results were terrifying: there were 5,490 declared fire incidents in Dubai in the mentioned period – an average two fires a day in Dubai. Moreover, Abu Dhabi’s Mafraq Hospital’s published records show that in 2013, they had 144 patients admitted in the Burns Unit, 50 percent of whose burn injuries were caused by fire and 30 percent of the patients were children below the age of five.
Fenton says along with electrical failures, the most likely cause of fire ignition is poor maintenance, cigarettes butts, barbecues, burning shisha coal, among others. “All that combined with hot climate causes fires to start easily.”
Dubai police statistics data from 2012 confirms this and shows unsafe habits and carelessness caused 27 percent or 107 of the total of 394 fires that broke out in Dubai. Of those, 22 fires were caused by burning incense in wardrobes put there to make clothes smell good, and 55 fires occurred because some type of burning object fell from the upper floors.
The Tamweel Tower fire, for example, happened because a cigarette butt was thrown into a garbage bin, and according to official reports, this September the building will see residents return. The cost of repairing the 34-storey tower has reached USD 21.2 million.
Available figures provided by Qatar Statistical Authority about the fire accidents in Doha are equally grim: in 2012, more than 1,180 incidents of fire were reported in Doha and for 1,084 the cause remains undetermined, while 83 fire incidents were caused by short circuit. There were 503 fire incidents in residential premises and 78 in shops and markets, resulting in 107 lives lost.
“There is not enough data available for us to put a cost on fire damage which occurs in the GCC region every year. Beyond the financial aspect, however, there are human aspects to consider, including loss of income when businesses can’t operate, etc.,” says Fenton. He stresses that inspection standards and education levels have to be raised, especially in labour compounds, where fires are regularly reported.
Fenton emphasises that all fire systems have to be properly maintained. “All fire systems are designed to prevent risk, and their life span is between 10 to 15 years if properly maintained. Fire safety systems must be fully tested and operational at all times,” he adds.
Also, there is the common problem where a lot of buildings are repurposed for a usage that they weren’t originally designed for – like changing an office building into a residential and installing kitchens without upgrading the necessary fire safety systems. “Office spaces are usually open, and it is easy to see what is going on. That is not the case when the building is turned to residences – they are very compartmentalized, and the fire safety system needs to be upgraded.”
Rising of the fire safety public awareness is crucial to avoiding fire incidents, as is investing in fire alarms and other fire detection systems. Oman’s Public Authority of Civil Defense and Ambulances (PACDA) announced that it will become mandatory for all house owners to have fire alarms in their houses. In Oman, where just new buildings are required to have fire alarms and extinguishers, there were 3,768 fire-related incidents in 2013, and more than 1,000 of them were caused by an electrical fault.
“Standards are improving all the time, but public awareness must be raised,” Fenton stresses. “There is huge mixture of people in the GCC. They have different levels of safety awareness. The public needs to be more aware about the maintenance of their buildings.
The landlords should be challenged to follow maintenance schedules, and they should take responsibility for the safety of their residents,” he says, adding that barbecues on balconies of residential towers are a serious safety concern in the region. It is speculated that the Torch Tower fire was caused by a barbeque or shisha coal left out on one of the building’s balconies.
Companies must regularly train their employees, Fenton adds, and the people who are taking care of building maintenance must be properly educated. The vast majority of blue-collar workforce is not trained properly, mainly because companies are not willing to invest in safety and emergency procedure training. Safety regulations are there – all countries across the Gulf are improving them – but they are not always enforced consistently.
By: Khadiza Begum
Stricter enforcement of fire regulations, and substantial investment in relevant business sectors are creating opportunities in Qatar in terms of investment in, and development of, fire detection and suppression systems.
The fire protection systems industry has grown exponentially over the last decade as it is vital to the detection and prevention of fires in several sectors including industrial, oil and gas, infrastructure, development and marine.
“The global fire safety systems market is expected to exhibit a double-digit CAGR in the next three years and reach a value of around USD 70 billion by 2018,” says Rami Al Batrawi, general manager at IGTC – Chubb Fire Qatar, and adds: “The Qatar fire safety systems market is also expected to expand at a high double-digit CAGR.”
Home to the world’s largest natural gas resources, Qatar’s gas exploration, production, transportation and storage sites and activities are vulnerable to fire hazards making fire safety systems mandatory to guard against loss of life and property. “QCDD (Qatar Civil Defence Department) regulations and innovations in fire safety technology are the main drivers for the growth of the fire safety systems market,” says Al Batrawi.
Additionally, in attempts to ensure all companies in Qatar comply with international standards of safety, stricter enforcement of fire regulations, and a corresponding increase in budget, with increased spending allocated for smarter protection of assets from fire hazards, has led to increased market share for businesses selling and maintaining fire prevention systems.
Dousing the flames
According to the Ministry of Interior, the reasons why fires start are complex. In order to manage fire risk, authorities often find it practical to narrow down factors for a fire to start. In February 2014, a gas explosion at a restaurant in Doha killed 12 people, and injured 35 others. It later became clear a gas tank had exploded, causing the huge blast and subsequent fire.
Duncan Steward, environmental health & safety (EHS) officer at Mesaieed Power Company tells BQ magazine, “A large number of incidents tend to involve electrical products.” Subsequent investigations proved this to be the case in the Villaggio fire that happened a few years back, where electrical equipment (more specifically, an overheated light bulb) began the blaze. This type of failure, coupled with human error (a lack of knowledge as to how to operate and maintain electrical equipment) has been widespread in the construction, service and maintenance industries in Qatar.
The biggest challenge is a general lack of knowledge about fire safety and prevention. Steward says about companies in Qatar, “Generally the belief is that it won’t happen to them and it is nothing to worry about.”
Nishad Abdulla, operations director at Gulf Star Group, believes that major instances of fire and explosion are directly related to a lack of compliance with international standards of fire prevention. In the past, in Qatar, fire safety norms in both the construction and maintenance sectors have been poor. “Most of the time, I see human error. Fires happen for many reasons – electricity overload, smoking and cooking in non-authorised areas and short circuits due to faulty wiring. Most fires I witness in Qatar have been caused by air conditioning units,” a fire fighter anonymously concurs.
Employees often do not know how to use fire extinguishers, or where the fire exits are. Even worse, they are unaware as to whether their fire extinguishers are operational, or out of date, and therefore useless in an emergency. A Civil Defense employee says very few employers or employees check whether extinguishers are in working condition – something that should be reviewed once every six months. Equally, fire prevention tools fail to be maintained and checked in the correct way. Sprinklers are sometimes installed in places where they cannot function properly, or the distance between them is such that they would fail to put out a fire effectively.
For some, adequate fire safety measures are considered to be a waste of money, so cheaper, inadequate solutions are found.
“Actually, people do realise the value of fire safety measures, but faced with the potentially high expenditure, many businesses in the city continue to ignore them and operate with little or no fire protection. Therefore, to ensure better fire safety, a quality service should be available at a more reasonable cost. Adequate fire insurance is also essential. I think there should be a clear and quick procedure to gain safety approval from the Qatar Civil Defence,” Abdulla adds.
Fire safety systems market
The Qatari government has initiated regulatory frameworks with improved levels of standards that comply with those present internationally. This has improved and enhanced the domestic fire safety systems market. Various enterprises across the country have increased their spending on fire protection, and other measures to safeguard their infrastructure and protect human life.
Substantial investments in development sectors have made Qatar well-suited in terms of investment in fire detection and suppression systems market. According to Qatar Civil Defence authorities, in the period up to and including 2013, 161 companies obtained official accreditation to install new and improved fire systems.
287 companies were granted official permissions and licenses to sell and install fire alarms and other types of fire-fighting equipment, and a further 132 companies emerged during that period that began to sell nothing but fire-fighting products. The rapidly expanding numbers of companies involved in the sector illustrate a swift increase in those investing in fire safety and prevention.
Active prevention systems such as fire sensors, smoke and heat extraction systems, extinguishers and sprinklers are now widespread. And passive fire safety systems, such as fire-resistant walls, load bearing columns and fire-resistant floors and doors, are now incorporated in modern buildings to prevent collapse and the spread of fire to other areas.
Within the industry, four general classes of fire exist. There are Class A fires – those that involve ordinary combustible materials; Class B fires involving flammable liquids; Class C fires involving “live” electrical equipment; and Class D fires which exclusively involve combustible metals.
Within all of these classes, the most common means of combating fire is the fire extinguisher, available in different forms involving water, foam, powder, carbon dioxide and wet chemicals. The most commonly used and affordable fire extinguishers are water fire extinguishers and these are suitable for most fires.
However, they are not useful when fighting fires that involve flammable liquids, or live electrical equipment. For those types of fires, foam extinguishers are far more effective. Wet chemical fire extinguishers are most useful for combating cooking oil or fat fires and dry powder fire extinguishers can be more safely used on fires involving electrical equipment, or those featuring flammable solids and liquids.
The second most popular product in the field of fire prevention is the fire alarm. There are many different types of alarms, especially for domestic buildings and most of them include heat detectors and smoke alarms built in as a standard.
Sprinkler systems are also popular in commercial construction and range from simple to complex. Of these, the most frequently installed sprinkler is the ‘wet pipe’ system. When activated, it rapidly releases water from pipes onto the fire, ensuring a widespread, constant and effective way to dampen and extinguish fires, particularly in large buildings.
The fire safety and prevention market in Qatar has also seen a rapid expansion in the number of companies offering a wide and varied range of other safety and prevention equipment, including firefighting and smoke protection masks, fire blankets, fireproof work gloves, helmets and boots.
New technology, such as manned interface solutions, smart building, and wireless sensory networks, are becoming more available in the country. New global innovations in fire safety technology are now influencing Qatari attitudes to fire prevention. Awareness of the benefit of replacing old fire safety systems with new ones has been primarily responsible for the purchase of new technology and has encouraged its implementation. Increasingly, more modern and sophisticated fire alarm systems have become available in Qatar, and Qatar Civil Defence is employing their use.
Since 2014, new cameras have been provided to the fire authorities, which enable firefighters to spot potential victims much more quickly through detecting body heat. The cameras auto detect where humans are via a thermal signal, which leads to faster rescue and lives saved.
Fire fighters have also been given new air masks, which allow them to have constant audio contact with their supervisors and others outside the building in question, who may have a better perspective of the state and extent of the spread of the fire. If a firefighter feels that he, or other people, are in acute danger, he can easily communicate that perception and his assessment of the risk with experts stationed outside. This technology is truly state-of-the-art, introduced only recently in Qatar.
Makram F. Al Ghossaini, manager at Security, Safety and Trading Centre talks about another latest innovation – an upgrade to the ‘Mimic Panel.’ “With this updated product, you can identify the exact location of any given fire,” he says.
Steward says new industrial buildings are now constructed in compliance with a number of laws (QCS 2014 and NFPA), incorporating modern fire suppression materials, but one of the most important new factors in terms of safety are new low pressure water mist systems, which use less water to extinguish fire and are more environmentally friendly.
They produce an ultra-fine water mist that rapidly cools the fire and due to enhanced heat absorption technology, the resultant steam expands and creates an inert atmosphere, which smothers the fire. “We have a number of installations – fire alarm systems, infrared detectors, sprinklers, ring mains with extra hydrant outlets, portable dry powder and CO2 fire extinguishers, and our own fire/foam tender engine, custom made for us in the UK,” he says of Mesaieed Power Company.
This industry is not without its share of obstacles and according to Al Batrawi, recruitment of qualified personnel is one of the biggest challenges. “Unfortunately, the various educational institutes in this part of the world do not offer the required subjects in the field, which force us to resort to overseas recruits and invest heavily in training,” he further explains.
The insurance sector should have a front line role in the process of developing this sector further as this has a direct impact on the risk, inevitably impacting premiums, according to Al Batrawi.
Al Ghossaini takes a slightly different track and explains how business people and private individuals are unconcerned about the quality of fire safety in their homes and places of work. “Consequently, they often turn to lower cost products and this is especially true with smaller fire safety products,” he says citing an example: “If we get a request for a quotation for fire safety system works and I demand QR 1 million (which is my standard rate with my level of experience in the field), smaller companies will often only demand QR 500,000. This leaves me with two options – to accept the lower quotation or to lose the project. And to be honest, I would rather lose the project than install low quality products.”
Even though, the future seems bright for the fire safety system market, there are some issues of concern for this industry as Qatar relies mostly on imported fire detection and suppression solutions. However, it is a major challenge for small players in order to remain competitive. Al Ghossaini mentions that since most fire safety products are imported here, the result is higher costs.
“However, we are soon going to commence manufacturing such items locally, enabling us to offer cheaper prices. We can then supply to other companies locally, as well as internationally. We have plans to export to the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and other interested countries,” he reveals.
Product resilience is also crucial, as Qatar’s harsh weather conditions have the need for systems which are able to resist in extreme climactic conditions. Increased regulations from the Qatar Civil Defence, innovation in fire safety technologies and increased awareness about fire safety play a major role in the growth of the fire safety systems market in Qatar.