Building assurance & fire strategy

Building assurance & fire strategy

With the international investment in aviation projects continuing, the cliché that the world is becoming a smaller place still remains relevant today writes Dermot Gallagher, Senior Fire Engineer in the UAE, Exova Warringtonfire. Tourism destinations have been competing to attract international tourists and their resulting economic impact and tourism development is seen as a way of improving a country’s economic and social well- being. 

Strategically located almost midway between Asia, Africa and Europe, the UAE, and Dubai in particular, can be reached by air travel in just three hours from Mumbai, four hours from Nairobi, eight hours from Hong Kong, and an overnight flight from the UK. It is a major aviation hub in the Middle East. 

The recent opening of a new Dh300 million, 18,500m2 mall embracing eco-friendly best practices by the design team behind My City Centre Masdar certainly has the country’s long-term growth and sustainability goals in mind. The Majid Al Futtaim mall, the company’s 25th, is located in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s sustainable urban community, and features more than 70 shops, including a 7,000 m2 Carrefour, the French brand’s 100th store in the UAE. Another mega shopping mall project under construction is the Meydan Mall – a pioneering destination bringing together an immersive community experience through world-class design, entrepreneurship and technology and when completed will consist of:

• Over 550 retail outlets including a 13,200m2 hypermarket

• Grand civic plaza with over 30,000 occupants

• 190 food & beverages outlets

• 21-screen cinema

• 1km long indoor ski slope & 12,000m2 Winter Village

• 25,800m2 dancing water fountain

• 37,000m2 entertainment experience

• 5,430m2 medical centre 

• Luxury plaza hotel, lifestyle canyon & 20,000m2 office tower

• 8.2km crystal lagoon

• 12,600 car parking spaces

Safety concerns

A large, crowded, shopping centre represents a significant potential for loss of life in the event of a fire. It therefore requires the highest standards of management to ensure that risks are anticipated and covered by the best possible systems for life safety and property protection. Assuming the original design fire strategy is robust, the one key factor that needs to be present if disaster is to be averted is a high standard of fire safety management.

Often, the one common element in multi-fatality fires is the failure of the occupants to take the right action when fire is discovered, or when the alarm is raised. Only effective management combined with adequate and appropriate training can ensure that the correct actions are likely to be taken.

Many shopping malls in the region not only provide a complete shopping and leisure experience but also provide direct interfaces to hotels, apartments and transportation infrastructure. The evacuation strategy for the whole building must consider all potential users including those who are awake and familiar with the building and those likely to be asleep and unfamiliar with the building layout – but how to ensure the whole fire & life safety strategy is robust in the event of an emergency?

Common fire hazards

The occupancy profile and potential for high density, combined with the potential for high fire loads raises concerns when issues are highlighted over inadequate fire safety provisions such as passive building design, active fire protection and fire safety management. When considering the design of a new shopping mall or an assessment of an existing facility, a review should be undertaken to ascertain the geometry of the mall and the associated facilities, fire safety provisions including means of escape, fire service access and facilities, and the transient occupant loading.

Fire hazards to be considered include electrical malfunctions and open flames, sparks, and hot surfaces, commonly found in most restaurants. Large numbers of people, expensive property, and large stocks of merchandise rely on a full fire protection solution to keep them safe and ongoing maintenance and functionality of the fire systems is critical to maintaining a safe building for staff and shoppers alike.

To ensure a successful fire safety regime is implemented within a shopping mall it is vital to develop a sound understanding of the key elements that provide the basis to develop and implement a successful fire strategy which should embrace the moral, legal and financial reasons for promoting good standards of safety and should be transparent to all relevant stakeholders. The UAE Fire & Life Safety Code 2018 provides a framework for the regulation of fire safety and best practice in the region.

The failure to manage safety adequately can often result in death or injury and loss of business confidence, which can have a significant impact on the physical and economic wellbeing of society. A serious fire in a shopping mall associated with inadequate management of fire safety can begin a spiral of events that may result in total business failure.

Whether we are looking at a new shopping mall development or at an existing mall it is important to understand the fire risks likely to be encountered during its operation. Due to the fundamental role risk assessments play as a starting point for developing designs and safety management systems, they must be conducted systematically. A systematic approach will help satisfy the law and ensure that nothing which could present a risk is inadvertently omitted and can be relatively easily achieved by a straightforward progression through a number of logical steps.

There are a number of different methodologies that can be used to achieve a systematic approach to risk assessment. In essence the fundamental themes are:

• Identify the hazards

• Decide who might be harmed and how

• Evaluate the risks (in terms of likelihood and severity) and decide whether the existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done

• Record the significant findings

• Review the assessment and revise if necessary.

The key to effective safety management, once the risks have been identified, is to establish and implement a control strategy. The measures that are put in place to secure the safety of all those at work or who may be affected by the work or its processes should reflect the local requirements as a minimum standard, as well as any technological advances that have been made.

The integration and correct sequencing of a building’s fire systems is captured within the cause and effect matrix. In the event of a fire and the failure of the cause and effect, the importance of the correct installation of passive fire protection systems and their ongoing maintenance can prove to be a critical factor for both life safety and property protection. It is a timely opportunity to highlight the importance of these systems.

What is passive fire protection?

Passive fire protection (PFP) is a form of fire safety provision that remains dormant, or inert, during normal conditions but becomes active in a fire situation. Fire stopping is best defined as the sealing of any openings to prevent fire (including smoke and heat) from passing through multiple building compartments. The spread of a fire is contained by creating fire resisting compartments, which subdivide the building (vertically or horizontally). Buildings must ensure that any openings and gaps are fire stopped to restrict both lateral and vertical fire spread. It is an integral component of structural fire protection in a building, which is designed to contain fires or slow their spread. The purpose of PFP is to contain the spread of fire for sufficient time to permit;

i)the safe evacuation of all occupants off the premises and;

ii)the arrival of the Civil Defence. 

The person responsible for fire safety also has a duty of care towards any members of the emergency services, e.g. Civil Defence officers, who may have to enter the premises during the course of a fire. In slowing the spread of flames, smoke and hot gases, PFP also serves to ensure the building remains as safe as possible for entry in this situation.

As highlighted above, the firestop is a fire protection system made of various components used to seal openings and joints in fire-resistance rated wall or floor assemblies. For penetrating cables, these can also be called Multi Cable Transits (MCTs). Firestops are designed to restore the continuous fire-resistance of wall or floor assemblies, impeding the spread of fire by filling the openings in them with fire-resistant materials.

PFP is a vital part of any fire design – safeguarding human life and reducing the risk to property in the event of fire – and is designed into the structure of a building providing fire separations in the form of fire rated floors and walls. These fire separations are used to form fire compartments – which restrict the spread of fire and smoke within the building allowing occupants to escape and offering protection to fire fighters. Many will have openings formed within, either for the passage of building services such as cables, pipes, ducting or for the installation of fire rated glazing, doors, inspection hatches or service risers.

PFP encompasses many different building elements – fire separations, in many instances, will require seismic movement joints – which require fire stopping using a suitably tested product. Some construction elements will require additional passive fire protection measures such as structural steel, kitchen extract ducting, large open ceiling voids and specialist surface coatings. 

Passive fire protection is both complex and detailed and adequate time should be spent researching the correct product before specifying, sourcing or installing to ensure the chosen system is building code compliant.

The UAE Fire & Life Safety Code 2018 places a high level of responsibility on to a project design team to ensure that fire stop systems are fit for purpose. In fact, a final inspection report must be submitted to Civil Defence by the main consultant jointly signing off the systems in conjunction with the firestop system manufacturer, firestop installer, firestop specialist and the house of expertise as acceptance of the system and as evidence of compliance with the code. This reassurance to both Civil Defence and to the ultimate client ensures that the firestop systems consist of materials installed to retain the integrity of the fire resistance rated construction by maintaining an effective barrier against the spread of flame, smoke and/or hot gases through openings (gaps) that accommodate penetrations, fire resistive joints and perimeter openings.

Building assurance and health checks

In previous articles we have discussed the importance of a fire strategy from the initial concept strategy, where the existing fire safety management of an organisation can be appraised and data on existing fire system audit protocols can provide useful information that can be analysed. This review would include in-house standards, policies, and existing strategies, etc. The fire systems audit would determine how the fire protection is working in existing buildings. If concerns are raised over existing standards of management and maintenance, then future fire strategies for new projects should be cautious of making design assumptions based on a high level of fire safety management and maintenance.

An inspection of a building’s passive fire systems and a fire system health check involving a third party validation of the installed fire systems is often a worthwhile exercise to establish `if you have got what you think you have?’ These assessments can form part of an overall fire and life safety building assurance audit and would include system testing based on the approved building cause and effect based on an emergency scenario.

Having developed the fire strategy through the design process for a project the following should be included and validated:

• Fire strategy statement

• Management of fire strategy

• Evacuation strategy

• Fire and smoke control strategy

• Firefighting strategy

• Fire protection strategy

The final fire strategy should be in an agreed format style containing the appropriate level of detail for approval by the AHJ. The document should be a controlled “live” document and it is recommended that it is reviewed annually and updated at least once every five years and should form the basis for any future building projects and works.

Classification of firestop systems

The UAE Fire & Life Safety Code 2018 identifies the following primary systems, namely;

• Through penetration firestop systems: openings in fire rated assemblies where penetrants passing through a fire-rated construction and where the integrity of the wall and/or floor needs to
be maintained.

• Membrane penetration:  openings in fire rated assemblies where only one side of the fire rated barrier is penetrated (i.e. electrical outlet boxed and other electrical devices).

• Fire resistive joint systems: any gap, joint, or opening (static or dynamic) between two fire-rated barriers including where the top of a wall meets a floor or similar configuration.

• Perimeter fire barrier system: the gap, joint or opening, whether static or dynamic, between a fire rated floor assembly and a non-rated exterior wall assembly.