Fabulous malls require unique fire safety solutions

Fabulous malls require unique fire safety solutions

When Dubai boldly launched itself as a shopping destination in the 1990s, few expected that the city would soon rival Milan, Paris or New York – but 30 years on, it has helped catalyse an architectural and cultural revolution across the Middle East. Now as the region’s capitals compete to see who can build the most spectacular mall, Dominic Jeff, Technical Writer, Securiton, details the advanced devices and methods that can help protect these fabulous venues.

Since shopping malls have become vast and embraced ever more ambitious sports and entertainment projects within them, fire safety has become a huge and complex challenge. These modern architectural masterpieces, which are springing up across the Middle East, are also among the most prestigious and interesting projects that fire safety professionals can hope to work on. With the trend for ever more spectacular and complex destination malls showing no sign of slowing, they are also a growth area for those able to build powerful, smart detection systems that can provide owners and insurers with peace of mind. 

Invariably given the inherent uniqueness of every destination building and the impossibility of regulations keeping pace with economic and architectural ambitions, designing these systems will involve performance-based design that goes beyond codes and standards in order to provide suitable protection to all concerned.

Spectacular destinations such as the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall and Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre and Tower invariably play with the power of space, and this is at the core of the fire detection problem that must be surmounted. Their soaring atria and cavernous halls provide a suitable sense of opulence and awe, while also being highly flexible in combining boutique shopping with gastronomy and entertainment on a grand scale. Increasingly, sports facilities and large-scale entertainment venues are also attached or built into shopping venues, while beyond the Instagram-friendly architecture a network of car parks, cable ducts, utility tunnels, power and data hubs hide further fire hazards in often hard to access areas. 

These complexes regularly host thousands of visitors and staff at peak times, who would all need to be safely evacuated should a fire take hold. Additionally, leading malls are now such an international draw that they are increasingly being built to include accommodation. This significantly multiplies both fire risks, and the challenges of evacuation. Alarming early is therefore essential in order to react with measured increments and prevent a panic, but, while fire detection can be difficult in such complex environments, it is equally important to avoid false alarms. Only the combined use of advanced detection methods, with suitable networking and combined with well-trained staff, will satisfy all of these requirements.

One of the primary fire safety concerns for large open spaces and open plan areas within buildings is the potential for rapid spread of fire and smoke. In cases of open spaces between floors or with large vertical openings, a fire on a single floor can cause fire and smoke to spread upwards throughout the building very quickly. This is particularly true of flexible spaces such as malls, where typically a series of individual shops are located on different levels, connected by the open space of the main covered public area. It is equally typical of hotels with soaring atria and mezzanines.

Another fire safety challenge is the need for safe evacuation of large numbers of people through designated egress routes. Early alarm is therefore paramount to both life and building safety when it comes to large open spaces. Fire detection is not only essential to provide a reliable alarm for evacuation, but also to trigger other consequential events or actions: these range from power-down processes to the control of emergency lighting and smoke management systems, and the actuation of a sprinkler or other suppression system. 

However, although early detection is required, a key problem with fire detection in large spaces is their potential for smoke stratification and dilution. In spaces with high ceilings, the smoke plume from an incipient fire will mix with vast amounts of additional cooler air as it rises, and this will alter its buoyancy and temperature. This phenomenon means the time required for smoke to reach sufficient density to trigger an alarm can be affected significantly. Indeed, stratification effects can mean that smoke will not reach detectors placed under the ceiling at all. 

Additionally, shopping malls in the Middle East are invariably air-conditioned. In ambient-controlled environments, higher airflow will also dilute and dissipate smoke quickly. The time required for a smoke detector to activate will depend on how sensitive it is and where the sampling points are located, which requires careful planning and potentially testing in real-world scenarios, given that each of these major buildings will be unique in both layout and airflow. Even smaller regional malls are rarely built to a standard design, as ‘uniqueness’ is part of the draw to discerning shoppers and tourists.

Fire and building codes continue to evolve but cannot hope to keep up with the pace of architectural ambition or the sheer variety of the venues and entertainment being dreamed up to entice tourists to the Middle East. This is especially so given that the Arabian peninsula in particular has very rapidly evolved from a region that could afford to adapt standards from other nations, into one that leads the way in the buildings it approves and constructs. This forces fire safety professionals into a fundamental shift from the traditional prescriptive Deem-to-Satisfy design based on regulations, to risk-informed and Performance-based Design (PBD). Consider, for example, the upcoming Meydan One Mall: options include an electric go-karting track, an e-gaming zone and designated areas for extreme sports. It will feature areas as diverse and unusual as a 1-kilometre indoor ski slope and a gigantic ‘crystal lagoon’ with a 500 metre beach. While neither of these is a high fire hazard in itself, they are areas where hundreds of guests will congregate, with airflow links from more conventional fire sources such as restaurant kitchens.

In these complex and unique environments, quantitative risk assessment requires the same smoke detection system to not only provide early warning and alarm in various fire scenarios, but also to work reliably in different building geometries or changing ambient conditions inside the protected areas. This is particularly true given that many modern malls are designed as multi-use and