The deaths of seven Emirati children in a Fujairah villa this week brings into sharp focus once again the dangers of fire. The shock to the UAE was palpable from this tragedy, leaving a grieving extended family and country. All those who have an affinity with the UAE felt the pain of loss.
Fires are a common but an unnecessary occurrence. Building codes, whether residential or commercial, should always be followed. Countries in this region are doing their utmost to enhance their fire response systems by investing in qualified and well-trained firefighters, continuous public awareness campaigns about the risks of fires, and measures to meet challenges including simulation training. Modern fire prevention technology is also beginning to enter the region to help monitor and quicken response times.
Nevertheless, fire prevention by taking precautionary measures is the key. This is a social responsibility for residential and commercial building owners, as well as homeowners themselves. Quarterly checks and the maintenance of all potential fire sources — including faulty wiring, venting, appliances, gas canisters and other combustibles — are all responsibilities that individuals must carry out with trained professionals, who can help identify dangers and mitigate them quickly. Smoke detectors and sprinkler systems must be installed and be in working order, as well as tied to the local civil defense.
High-rise buildings are an issue to watch out for from a fire safety perspective. Over the past few years, we have seen fires in a number of cities involving cladding, which is an exterior paneling used to enhance the appearance of towers but in reality acts like a “chimney” for flames. Cladding is now seen as a risk and many governments are telling property managers to replace it with a safer option. The blaze at Dubai’s Address Downtown hotel on New Year’s Eve 2015 and the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London are both testimony to how fires can spread quickly.
Evacuation protocols are critical for high-rise towers, which are growing taller and becoming more widespread all over the world. Emergency plans, including emergency evacuation mapping and standard operating procedures, are required in all buildings and must be adhered to by managers and security staff. Tenants must know the quickest way out and emergency exits have to be kept unlocked. Building management and staff are responsible for ascertaining who needs to be evacuated and who may be handicapped or unaware of how to exit the building safely. A disaster was averted in Dubai, but in London deaths occurred, possibly because of flawed evacuation procedures, among other reasons.
UAE government acts swiftly in wake of Fujairah tragedy that saw seven children killed in horrific villa blaze.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Governments must enforce fire safety regulations while relying on the goodwill of the owners of buildings and houses. Perhaps that goodwill is not enough. Owners are frequently unwilling to stump up the costs of adding fire safety measures or upgrading to newer codes and regulations until they are forced to do so because of an accident or the discovery of a violation.
In addition, insurance companies are slow to pay out — if there is any fire insurance at all — and that impacts the future of any burned-out structure. There are socioeconomic costs associated with such fires, where neighborhood businesses can face disruption for months, if not years.
Fire safety is not only the responsibility of the government and its firefighting components, but also every single resident.
The overall target is to achieve mandatory Civil Defense requirements in all buildings. This will also involve reviewing any emergency procedures to ensure they do not inadvertently compromise the safety of tenants.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues.