Talking about … Fire testing

Talking about … Fire testing

The Thomas Bell-Wright fire testing lab in Dubai occupies almost 8,800 m2 on a corner in the Jebel Ali Industrial Area (which is not part of the free zone), and employs approximately 110 people, of which about half are engineers. In this issue Chairman, Tom Bell-Wright, gives us a greater insight into his world of testing, standards and accreditation.

Firstly, to put things into perspective, can you describe where the lab is at this point in time?

Certainly.  There was nothing on the land when it was leased to us in 2013, and we have developed and built all of our current facilities.  

These include the large shed where we conduct Resistance-to-Fire testing, a smaller shed for Fire Propagation testing with separate equipment for UK and US standards, and the Reaction-to-Fire testing laboratory building.  Outdoors, there are 3 large free-standing double-sided walls for performance testing of Curtain Wall Mock-Ups, and a very large wall (35m long by 25m high) for research and ad-hoc testing.

We have a number of activities in addition to these.  On the fire compliance side, we are also a Certification Body for the products and systems we test, and an Inspection Body.  On the Curtain Wall / Building Façade side, we provide on-site performance testing, and our Façade Consulting division provides design review services.  A number of other tests, for example Acoustic and balustrade tests, fall under the umbrella of the Curtain Wall testing department.

What is the general landscape for fire testing in the region?

We are, by some margin, the largest laboratory for about 4,000 kilometers in any direction.  Within the UAE there are two other private laboratories providing fire testing.  One, a branch of a large multinational, has a single rig for Fire Propagation (we have 2 for the UK standard and one for the US), and the other, a domestic company, has a single Fire Resistance furnace (we have 4 including a 4m x 5m vertical, and a 4m x 5m horizontal furnaces).  They also have some Fire Reaction equipment.  Dubai Civil Defense in collaboration with an Abu Dhabi investment house are expected to be providing some level of fire testing in their facility on the Hatta Road shortly.  

One of our unique attributes is the ability to test to standards from different regions, primarily the UK, US, and Europe.  We are accredited for 13 Fire Reaction standards, 85 Fire Resistance standards and a further 9 related or other fire test standards. 
There are 37 tests from various authorities for Curtain Wall performance testing.

What do you mean by ‘accredited’?

Our different activities (Testing, Inspection and Certification – our industry calls itself “TIC”) are required by law to conform to particular ISO standards – 17025 for testing, 17020 for inspections and 17065 for certification.  These standards require detailed management and quality procedures not dissimilar to ISO 9001 for manufacturing.  Compliance requires selecting an ‘accreditation body’ of which most countries have one, and some several.  

We chose UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) from the UK, formerly a government agency, and IAS (International Accreditation Service), part of the International Code Council (ICC, publisher of the International Building Code) from the US.  In order to interpret and implement the standards consistently, Accreditation Bodies align with each other through membership of an umbrella organisation such as ILAC, and being a signatory to their MLA (multi-lateral agreement) or MRA (mutual recognition agreement).  We carry some duplicate accreditations with EIAC (Emirates International Accreditation Centre) and with GAC (Gulf Accreditation Centre), based in Saudi Arabia, being local requirements.

In a similar vein, can you unravel ‘certification’ for us?

It’s a word we hear all too frequently, but many people don’t really understand it.  The idea is that a lab could test a product, let’s say a fire door, and issue a report documenting the test including, possibly, the visual characteristics of the door and information the manufacturer has provided about its construction.  He sells a thousand doors to your contractor for the high-rise building you are developing, on the strength of the report.  But how do you (or the building regulators in your jurisdiction) know that the doors delivered are the same as the door tested, that some innocent and well-intentioned change in materials or assembly has not affected their performance?  This is of course to say nothing about the possibility of willful deception for cost cutting.

The process of certification looks like this:  First, the manufacturing location has to have a quality management system such as ISO 9001, acceptable to the Certification Body (CB).  This assures consistency of materials, quality procedures and records, for example.  Next the CB selects a sample for testing from the factory production and identifies it with a signature.  Following successful testing the CB provides a certificate and a report and posts them on line, a process called ‘listing’.  The manufacturer is permitted to use the CB’s certification ‘mark’ on the product.  Familiar CBs are BSI (the Kite Mark), Underwriters’ Labs (UL)
and Certifire.

Our listings can be found at, along with their status (whether they are current or not).  All certifications are listed on line and purchasers of certified and listed products should check the listings to make sure the product or system certification is current, and that it has been installed in a way consistent with its certification.

The final link in the chain is for the CB to visit the factory periodically, usually 2 to 3 times per year, and ensure that the quality management systems are being maintained and complied with.  Normally the auditor will have some comments or suggestions for improvement, called Corrective Actions, which the manufacturer has to address in order to keep the certification status of the product active in the listing. 

As a Façade Consultant and a Fire Testing lab, you must be very involved with ACP?

Yes, we have been at the epicentre of this issue.  We first recognised the problem with composite panels in 2006 when we investigated a fire in Doha.  We advised all our clients to use the only brand then available with a fire retardant core and tried to alert the industry.  We are proud to have been able to assist Arup in the project that was supported by the NFPA to produce their Fire Risk Assessment Tool in 2018 for evaluating existing buildings.  We were able to give them a large amount of anonymized testing data from our multi-standard fire propagation and Reaction-to-Fire testing.  

And the key to success is?

Each company is a group or team, that’s how it works.  We couldn’t have got to where we are without the contributions of many highly talented, loyal and hard-working people over a long period of time.  When we were a young company – growing entirely organically without any investment save my own time – we found it difficult to recruit good people.  Now the opposite is true.  At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, we have so many great people!