Fire Protection in the Persian Gulf Region

Is developing business in the Middle East a long-term effort? And how exactly does a U.S. engineering firm succeed in breaking into this market? The answer to the first question is a simple yes. How a firm goes about establishing a foothold in the Mideast market requires a much longer answer. One must invest in this new market.

By Martin Kealy, CENG, FIFIREE, MSFPE, Director, International Practices. Schirmer Engineering, Atlanta February 1, 2007

Is developing business in the Middle East a long-term effort? And how exactly does a U.S. engineering firm succeed in breaking into this market? The answer to the first question is a simple yes. How a firm goes about establishing a foothold in the Mideast market requires a much longer answer.

One must invest in this new market. Having done the same thing before with U.K.-based companies, I have found that it normally takes two to three years to see dramatic increase in recognition by local firms. My firm, Schirmer Engineering, is a good example. When we began to pioneer this new market, we were relatively unknown in the Middle East. Now, we are recognized as a leading brand for both fire-safety and security consulting by the major developers and design firms.

The United Arab Emirates’ city of Dubai, located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The growth of Dubai is part of a conscious government plan focused on trade and tourism. Authorities are well aware that the UAE’s oil reserves could be depleted as early as 2010, and have launched a massive building effort to prepare for impending economic transition.

To achieve this success in this market, keep in mind the following factors—about the Middle East in general and Dubai as a target market in particular:

The Middle East is a busy market, but it is actually made up of many smaller markets that must be individually targeted. Dubai has 20% of the world’s cranes in one small city and is home to the world’s two tallest towers. Consequently, much of the focus on development in the region is on the city of Dubai.

Again, to take the city as an example of what to expect, Dubai is English-speaking and primarily uses U.S. fire codes with some British, German and Australian standards.

That said, while the city may be cosmopolitan, it’s necessary to think local. We have built trust and strong relationships with the fire and police departments and obtained certification and approval for our consultants with these authorities.

Having worked in the region for more than 15 years, I personally already had local knowledge of the market and main players. But even with my prior experience in the Middle East, we still had to do a lot of knocking on doors to introduce our expertise to gain access to this market.

The key is to create a presence in the country that is the targeted market. In the Middle East, partnering with a local company is one option, but we have found this approach to be slow. Consequently, we decided to open an office employing local professionals and set up an international supply chain of engineering support from the United States.

Finally, we marketed our Middle East expertise to our existing U.S. client base—the big architects that work internationally such as SOM, HOK, Pei Partners and Perkins + Will. These are actually the major players on most of these projects, because Gulf state authories often look to these firms for architectural services rather than to locals.

These are all factors that make the transition to working in this region smooth. But there are some important potential obstacles to consider.

Fire safety technology

There are differences in how Middle East counterparts approach technologies such as sprinkler systems, smoke control, fire control and detection, and fire alarm systems.

The main difference is that most internationally recognized codes are accepted, so there is a mix of U.S., U.K., German and Australian codes. It would be quite normal to design a sprinkler system to NFPA13 and then to design the fire alarm to British Standard BS5839 on the same building. Initially, we were concerned about the mixing of codes, but we compared the BS and NFPA standards closely and found them to be very similar.

With so many marquee projects in the Middle East, one can assume that the developers here are far ahead of the curve in terms of state-of-the-art building automation systems. We have offered fire strategy and security design in this region for a variety of structures, from mixed-use commercial complexes to sports stadiums. With unique structures come unique challenges. We are always incorporating new technologies in our designs and cannot afford to rely solely on existing technologies that will be obsolete by the time the construction process is complete.

One last point to make about designing fire-protection in the UAE is that performance-based design (PBD) is widely accepted. This is a result of the long influence that fire professionals from the U.K., Sweden and Australia have had on UAE design teams and fire authorities. These countries have had PBD codes for many years. The fire authorities have also been trained in the U.K. where PBD are widely accepted. In one jurisdiction, computational fluid dynamics calculations are required to demonstrate code compliance. In fact, with so many unique, marquee buildings stretching the building codes, PBD is an absolute must.

The big differences

How has working in the Middle East differed from working domestically? The best way to describe this region is a unique mix of U.S. and U.K. influences on local customs and culture, but in a sense, the culture is definitely British. But with McD’s and Hummers in abundance and cars driving on the right hand side of the road, it would be hard to distinguish Dubai from any U.S. desert city such as Phoenix or Las Vegas.

The UAE is a Muslim country, but it is not Iraq or Iran. The UAE is friendly to the West—and toward the United States in particular. The UAE is also not Saudi Arabia. In other words, while national costume is worn by locals, it is not required, and the presence of Western style restaurants and night clubs make it a relatively familiar destination for the U.S. and other western engineers working in Dubai.

Also, most foreign nationals are happy to discover that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other major cities in the Gulf region have very low crime rates and are safe—in fact, more so than most U.S. cities. Dubai is a major vacation destination for Europeans.

The language used in construction is English, but American English and the English spoken in Dubai can differ. The use of metric instead of Imperial English units is another practical difference. What this generally means is that U.S. engineers face a steeper learning curve and longer period of acclimation than their counterparts from other western nations.

One of the benefits in working in a city such as Dubai is the mix of top design professionals from all parts of the world. What this translates into is a lot of engineering know-how, providing an intellectual ferment that results in new technologies being introduced rapidly. Typically one will hear, “Well we do this in Australia, and it works, so we are introducing this here.”

Westerner also will discover that the Arab mentality and approach to business can be different from what they are used to in their home countries, but I’ve always found it a pleasant approach, especially when compared with the way of doing business in other parts of the world such as China. It is important to gain the locals’ trust. Once their trust is earned, these clients are loyal.

As a U.S. firm, we are used to working with U.S. architects and most Dubai architects have a U.K. approach to design, which requires a much higher level of input. U.S. architects tend to take the lead and keep the fire consultant compartmented away from the design, whereas U.K. architects will expect the fire consultant to take the lead and be more proactive. On the other hand, U.K. architects can be higher maintenance than their U.S. counterparts. We overcome this by identifying the architect’s needs at an early stage and tailoring our service proposal accordingly. We have staff that have worked in both markets and understand the two approaches.

But the discussion so far applies to any type of business dealings in the Middle East. What about the specifics of fire protection and security work?

Fertile territory

The Middle East is an excellent market for U.S. fire protection and security firms. Our clients are very loyal, and we enjoy a high level of repeat business and are very often referred to new clients by our existing clients.

For those U.S. firms who wish to explore this market, I end on an encouraging note: As design team professionals, we are constantly being told that really good consultants are hard to find in the Middle East.

Other World Destinations

Staggering growth in Dubai has made it one of the most talked about cities in the world, with the city resembling a sea of construction equipment during the past six year. In fact, the city has added more than 560 buildings to its skyline since the beginning of 2006.

However, Schirmer Engineering’s international expertise stretches far beyond the United Arab Emirates. Schirmer’s international portfolio currently includes unique and large scale projects located in Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Chile, Korea, China, Kenya, Mexico, Australia, Canada, Uzbekistan, the United Kingdom and Jakarta.

In coming years, armed with our expertise and international experience, our intention will be to develop a stronger presence in other Emirates and Middle East countries. Through our relationships with multinational and global firms we will continue to build on the firm’s status in all these many global destinations. — By Jim Bychowski, P.E., Schirmer Engineering, Deerfield, Ill.

PBD: The Way to Go in the UAE

Performance-based design (PBD), especially when it comes to fire protection, is the suitable approach for many of the new structures being erected in the up and coming states of the Gulf region. Many of these new buildings on the Gulf are marquee projects by international architects, with much the same effect as in places like Shanghai, which has witnessed a drastic transformation of its skyline. No two structures are alike. The aesthetic issues not withstanding, what it means for the fire-protection engineer is that each new project is a challenge.

The United Kingdom has been the major influence in this part of the world for quite some time, and with respect to codes, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand have been using performance-based standards since the early 1990s. U.S. code organizations started looking seriously at these concepts in the mid 1990s, even though the National Fire Protection Assn.’s 2000 Life Safety Code was probably the first U.S. code to use the performance-based approach.

Actually, building codes in the United States, while being largely prescriptive, for many years have already incorporated the equivalency concept that allows for cost-effective and flexible alternatives. Traditionally, U.S. codes were fairly unique in this respect. However, these code provisions are different from a true performance-based system of regulatory codes.

Performance-based code changes existing codes in a way that clearly defines the intent before providing the solution; they separate intent from means of compliance, broadening the range of possible solutions.

Two arguments can be advanced that point to the greatest advantages of performance-based specifying. First, performance-based specifying encourages design professionals to look beyond the minimum standards of the prescriptive codes. Second, it is a means to bring members of the building team together, enabling them to agree on project goals up front, before any design even takes place. Working in the international arena, with so many parties from diverse backgrounds involved, a consulting engineer can appreciate the advantage of PBD.