Readers of Gulf Fire will hopefully recall my comments in the last edition of the magazine regarding the likely global implications of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London on 14th June 2017, which despite the heroic work of London Fire Brigade firefighters, claimed the lives of 71 men, women and children residents.
The Grenfell fire was first reported at 00.54 hrs in a fridge freezer in a 4th floor kitchen at the 24 storey tower. The outbreak rapidly escalated into a major incident with an attendance of 40 pumps and supporting special rescue appliances with more than 200 firefighters tackling the blaze and undertaking rescues of some 60 residents amid very hazardous conditions.
The flames were rapidly fed by combustible external cladding panels, and ineffective fire doors that also contributed to the fast spread of flame and smoke. Grenfell Tower had undergone a comprehensive refurbishment that was completed in 2017.
In the aftermath of the inferno, the UK government announced a Public Inquiry into the disaster. The first phase of the Public Inquiry commenced recently, and is examining the events on the night of June 14th 2018, including the actions of the London Fire Brigade. The second phase will consider decisions leading to the disaster, including the refurbishment of the tower and the management of the block.
Concurrent with the announcement of Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry was the the Independent Review of UK Building Regulations and Fire Safety being led by Dame Judith Hackitt, a former Chair of the UK Health & Safety Executive. The purpose of this Review was to:
Examine building and fire safety regulations and related compliance and enforcement, with a focus on high rise residential buildings, and to make recommendations that will ensure there is a sufficiently robust regulatory system for the future and to provide further assurance to residents that the complete system is working to ensure the buildings they live in are safe and remain so.
The Review published its findings in May 2018. Its final report sets out over 50 recommendations for government as to how to deliver a more robust regulatory system for the future. But the Review falls short of recommending an outright prohibition on materials similar to those which appeared to spread the fatal Grenfell fire almost a year ago.
Surprisingly, this decision by the Review defies calls from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), politicians and survivors of the blaze, which killed 71 people. These groups have all urged the government to ban construction materials that burn. The Review report also came after UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledged GBP£400m to strip flammable cladding similar to that found on Grenfell Tower from housing blocks.
Meanwhile, industry experts said the Review marked a failure to protect life safety, whilst politicians branded it a “whitewash” and said that without an outright ban, blame for any future fire disasters like Grenfell would lie with the government.
The outcome of the official Grenfell Inquiry will probably not be known for some considerable time, and the world of fire safety will have to wait to see if combustible cladding panels and other non-rated products will be outlawed.
Given the seemingly regular incidence of global tall tower fires, the eventual British response to the Grenfell disaster should be of significance to fire and safety engineers and the construction industry worldwide.
In 2017, the United Arab Emirates introduced tough new fire safety regulations which were embodied in the amended Fire Safety and Life Protection Code. These came into force across the UAE in response to a series of serious fires in high-rise towers in the Emirates over the past few years.
The new UAE Code targets the exterior cladding panels that have been blamed, as at Grenfell Tower, for the rapid spread of a number of high-rise tower fires and was primarily concerned with improving the fire safety of cladding panels, especially those on existing towers and other buildings. The newer UAE specifications are aimed at guaranteeing the installation of only the safest non-flammable cladding in new buildings, thus minimising the chances of fire spreading as ferociously as has been witnessed during recent incidents.
The amended UAE Fire Safety and Life Protection Code contains a requirement to minimise the risk to zero in high-rise towers, even in old buildings which will have to meet the new code when it is time for their maintenance. The Code specifies procedures for the installation of fire-rated cladding and contains detailed guidelines and responsibilities for consultants, contractors, and manufacturers. It also contains more details on how the panels should be installed in an appropriate way. There is no deadline for this in the Code as it will depend from building to building and when their maintenance is due.
There are an estimated 1,000 tall towers across the UAE believed to have non-rated external cladding panels in place, and a failure to comply with the new Code regulations will result in fines ranging from AED 500 to AED 50,000 for each violation. Civil Defence inspectors are carrying out regular inspections in their respective areas to check that the buildings are complying with the new rules.
Across the wider Middle East there must many tall towers with combustible cladding panels and other non-compliant building components. There is no doubt that fire engineers will await the recommendations of the Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster in the earnest hope that these will contribute to an ever-higher standard of fire safety in tall towers, wherever they may be.