Middle East fire and life safety

When working in the Middle East, fire and life safety engineers must learn the intricacies of their building and of the local codes.

By Jon M. Evenson, LEED AP; Aaron F. Vanney, PE, LEED AP; Shamim Rashid-Sumar, P January 20, 2010

View the full story in our monthly digital edition

In the past 30 years, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has transformed from a trading port to a booming metropolis with expansive developments that includes Downtown Burj Dubai, Palm Jumeirah, and iconic buildings including the Burj Dubai and Burj Al Arab. Developing fire and life safety strategies for these complex developments may be challenging, but such challenges can be overcome with a variety of design enhancements and a heightened focus on operations.

For the Burj Dubai (renamed Burj Khalifa) and Dubai Mall, RJA was contracted to develop, implement, and coordinate a comprehensive fire and life safety strategy, as well as develop a detailed crisis-management plan for management teams to use during an emergency.

Completed in January 2010, the Burj Dubai will be the tallest building in the world (more than 2,700 ft tall and more than 150 occupied floors) and will be directly connected to the Dubai Mall, designed to accommodate up to 1,200 stores.

The buildings’ complex size, design, and site configurations required a comprehensive fire and life safety strategy that could be implemented and managed after the initial handover was completed. Some challenges were inherent in the buildings’ design, such as increased evacuation times and mixed occupancies. Because the buildings are located in a market that experienced a construction boom, fire and life safety resources and local authorities were presented with additional challenges.

The Dubai Mall can handle up to 1,200 stores. This rendering shows the external view. Source: Emaar Properties

Development and implementation

The success of fire protection consultants in the Middle East may be attributed to a number of reasons. The largest contributing factor is the drastic increase in construction over the past decade, which served as basis for many companies to establish themselves in the market. With an abundance of work in the region, design teams were given the opportunity to work on unique buildings, which forced the industry to rethink how we achieve fire safety.

Like other iconic buildings in the Middle East, the fire and life safety strategies were developed early in the concept design phases of Burj Dubai. Such strategies included phased building evacuation with the use of areas of refuge. Early planning permitted the project team to design the building to accommodate exit stairs and areas of refuge within its concrete core. Additionally, a comprehensive emergency management plan was integrated with the fire and life safety strategy before the building was constructed and handed over to the building operator.

The comprehensive emergency management plan was developed in accordance with NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs . While the plan is based on a U.S. standard, it was developed specifically for the operational team and is integrated with a site-wide emergency management plan. Early focus on the design ensured smooth future operations by facilitating additional design refinement prior to building hand-over.

International safety concepts

Burj Dubai has a simple gravity-fed sprinkler system commonly used in early 20th century U.S. high-rise buildings, a fire alarm system designed to British standards with smoke detection provided throughout the building, and an egress strategy featuring areas of refuge commonly used throughout Asia, such as in Hong Kong and Singapore. This hybrid design provides additional flexibility when enhancing the level of protection. While the individual solutions would not be considered cutting-edge, the simultaneous implementation of the solutions is rare. RJA engineers had to rethink how to achieve fire safety because of the different strategies that may be used (i.e., reliance on passive versus active protection).

The Dubai Mall integrated the required fire and life safety systems with an operational planning management program for building occupancy. The comprehensive approach included response procedures, crisis management team structures, and coordination with the other sites in downtown Burj Dubai. This approach allowed the property developer to establish the fire and life safety strategy with the local authorities in advance of opening. As a result, the developer and management team could allow a phased opening while the remaining tenants completed their interior fit-outs.

The ability to overcome an emergency within the mall is a result of the developer’s collaborative effort with local authorities, including Dubai Civil Defence and Dubai Police. Such collaboration gave Emaar Properties , Dubai (the developer of Dubai Mall and Burj Dubai), and the Dubai authorities an understanding of the building components and operations prior to the opening of the mall. (In other jurisdictions, the crisis management plan is developed by the owner, submitted to the authorities for comment and review, and then revised without the level of integration seen in this project.)

When the mall opened last year, the Dubai Mall management team had successfully completed and received approval for operational programs that provided additional support to fire and life safety systems. One example is a specialized first-response team, trained prior to the mall’s opening, which monitored the mall for fire-related issues while the fire alarm system was being finalized and commissioned. Additionally, the local authorities fully understood how the management team planned to implement fire and life safety strategies in the event of a fire or other emergency.

The Dubai Mall integrated fire and life safety strategies with the Dubai Civil Defence and invited the authorities for a full walk-through of the program and a live evacuation drill prior to the grand opening. The Dubai Civil Defence supported the concepts, strategies, and response procedures that were implemented. In the event of a crisis at the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Civil Defence is required to coordinate additional support to the outlying areas around Sheik Zayed Road and downtown Burj Dubai.

The fire and building codes used in the Middle East differ for each civil defense authority (fire service). In addition to the numerous civil defense authorities, larger developments have established independent authorities with unique sets of codes and standards. The local codes mostly reflect the requirements of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code ; International Building Code (IBC) ; or NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code . However, each local code introduces unique requirements such as more restrictive travel distances, limited trade-offs for sprinkler protection, and areas of refuge for buildings taller than 30 stories. The additional local requirements are intended to enhance the level of life safety.

The system design and installation standards are often a hybrid of U.S. and British Standards. NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems , and NFPA 14, Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems , are widely accepted in the region. However, electrical systems are designed in accordance with British Standards such as BS 7671, Requirements for Electrical Installations , and BS 5266:1, Emergency Lighting Code of Practice for the Emergency Lighting of Premises . Examples of differences include 220 V instead of 110 V, and lower lighting levels for emergency lights.

The Burj Dubai has developed and implemented tabletop training sessions to test the crisis management procedures in a confined environment. This approach is vital to the successful implementation of fire and life safety strategies. A comprehensive but straightforward training program was developed and presented to all levels of management and staff, and local authorities, prior to opening of the building this year. The training sessions outlined what the parties could expect from each other in the event of a fire or other emergency.

Overcoming challenges

While the growth in the Middle East has shown advancements for the fire protection industry, it is important to understand the past and present challenges that design teams are facing. Such challenges are not unique to the Middle East geographically but result from accelerated growth and tight project schedules.

Diverse project teams often increase the level of expertise on a project due to the differing experiences; however, it also increases the need for coordination throughout each stage of the project. For example, many buildings in the region use magnetic locks with push buttons to secure doors. Under U.S. standards, these cannot be used as means of egress if additional features are not properly integrated.

The unique sets of codes applied throughout the region provide design teams with minimum requirements, but one-of-a-kind projects have introduced a variety of unique hazards that need to be addressed. For example, areas of refuge may be designed using multiple configurations. Additional requirements—such as areas of refuge to connect adjacent stairs or to be located on dedicated floors—may result in significant design changes. The combination of such projects and fast-paced construction has led to a number of requirements not being adopted formally into the local codes. Therefore, project teams that are not familiar with such undocumented requirements may be liable for design changes at later stages of the project. Design teams that have not been conducting continuous work in a jurisdiction should seek guidance from local authorities early in the project.

This rendering shows the ice rink within the Dubai Mall. It is directly connected to the Burj Dubai. Source: Emaar Properties

Developers in the Middle East have built numerous high-rise buildings in a short period, and the designs include multiple systems with varying levels of integration. While the system installations may be completed as specified, full building commissioning often is not conducted prior to authority inspection. Consequently, modifications required by the inspector are often corrected by the easiest solution without considering the overall building design. System maintenance is often done in a similar manner—systems are repaired only when a problem is reported.

Fire protection design teams should express the importance of system commissioning to owners early in the design stage so proper testing criteria may be integrated. Additionally, ownership groups should be made aware of inspection and testing requirements. The building commissioning for Burj Dubai is being overseen by the designers of record.

The extent of citywide infrastructure varies throughout the region, and it is important for design teams to understand the available resources. Achieving the minimum level of safety outlined in international codes and standards often relies on public utilities to provide services such as power and water. Because many developments experience problems related to public utilities, it is important that the design accommodate specific local resource issues.

The lack of a reliable water supply often requires additional on-site water storage that may be difficult to accommodate if not addressed early in the design stage. In the case of the Burj Dubai, intermediate storage tanks are located throughout the height of the building. Additionally, the lack of a reliable power supply may require an increase in the number of emergency generators. Consultants not familiar with the local resources should discuss these issues with the local authorities early in the design. Each building will have unique solutions based on building characteristics, ownership interest, and local authority. The only consistent difference is smoke detection throughout.

Dubai, like other Middle Eastern cities, relies on expatriate expertise to provide valuable resources to the design, implementation, and management of the fire and life safety strategies for buildings like the Burj Dubai and The Dubai Mall. This reliance has created challenges for property management companies and developers, who rely on additional outside resources to implement and maintain such strategies once expatriate consulting firms have completed the initial design and implementation.

To address these challenges, property developers and management companies are turning to fire and life safety consulting firms to provide input on how to improve procedures, training, and management.

RJA has been involved throughout the project completion schedule and is scheduled to continue to provide training in crisis management until the project is complete and the building is fully operational. This level of support is designed to coordinate the finalization of the crisis management plan, training, and drills as tenants occupy the Burj Dubai.

Author Information
Evenson is a senior consultant in the RJA-Dubai office and has been involved in crisis management planning for many high-profile projects in the Middle East. Gourdine is an associate in the RJA-Chicago office and has been actively involved in development of crisis management plans for various projects in the United States and the Middle East. Vanney is a senior consultant in the RJA-Dubai office and has been involved in the development of fire and life safety strategies on projects throughout the Middle East and China. Rashid-Sumar is the director/engineering manager of United Arab Emirates operations and has been involved in the development of fire and life safety strategies on projects throughout the Middle East, India, and China.

Life in Dubai

By Jon M. Evenson, LEED AP

I was approached by RJA’s management team and asked if I was interested in relocating to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. So in 2008, I jumped at the chance to move my family and provide better client support on current projects.

After the initial move, my family and I had to adjust to the new way of life and business in Dubai and determine how we could make the most of the opportunity. Some of the adjustments include the relocation process, family support, and international business management. Almost a year and half later, my family and I have adjusted to this new environment and are making the most of the time we have in the Middle East.

Life across the globe

One challenge we faced was the relocation process. We have a close extended family, and the thought of being 7,000 miles away from our families was a concern. Thanks to technology, our families seem only a few mouse clicks away from us. Mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet video conferencing allow us to stay in constant communication and feel as if we never left.

One of the most important factors for me to be successful in Dubai is my family’s support. I have been lucky enough to have 100% support from my wife, my daughter, and our parents and sisters. My wife, a successful educator in the United States, cannot work in Dubai due to her visa, but she has developed friendships with other expatriate women through the numerous moms-and-tots groups available. Through these groups and our apartment complex, my wife has built a great network of friends from various countries.

My contract provides my family the ability to go back to the United States twice a year. This allows us to take a break from Dubai and see family and friends. Travel costs are expensive, and the duration of the trips can be hard. Our flights to Chicago from Dubai can take anywhere from 15 to 18 hours and cost up to $15,000. These trips home are wonderful but never seem long enough, and the process to get home and back can be taxing.

Cost differences

Living in Dubai is expensive. My wife and I live in a two-bedroom apartment in a development known as Downtown Burj Dubai. Our apartment costs about twice as much as our four-bedroom, 2,500-sq-ft house outside of Chicago.

Costs in Dubai can vary depending on the nature of the product. Gas is cheap, while our monthly grocery bill is more than double what it was in Chicago. American brands in Dubai can be very expensive and sometimes hard to find.

Another economic issue in Dubai is school costs. School in Dubai is very expensive, up to $ 10,000 a year for full-time preschool. Primary schools are also very expensive and, if we were to stay in Dubai, we would need to put my daughter on a waiting list now, due to the large number of children in Dubai.

My wife and I bought one vehicle. My wife relies on public transportation to get together with her network of friends. Taxis are readily available but can be expensive.

Overall, my experience in the Middle East has been wonderful. My wife and I look at this opportunity as a positive experience, and I believe it was one of the best decisions of my life. I would recommend relocation to Dubai to consultants looking for challenging work on signature projects, and the ability to enhance their future in fire and life safety.

Evenson is a senior consultant in the RJA-Dubai office.

The business of working in the Middle East

By Jamal Ali and Shamim Rashid-Sumar, PE, LEED AP

Outside of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, project considerations and work requirements in other emirates and areas of the Middle East often are different. Beyond the registration process with local authorities and working knowledge of the local code requirements—which differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—cultural considerations cannot be generalized. An understanding of these differences can make servicing a project smoother.

Local codes and regulations

Registration with the local authorities such as the municipality or Dubai Civil Defence authority can be a protracted process if you are not familiar with the requirements. Trade license registration for companies in each jurisdiction and residence visas for expatriates in the country typically are required, as well as a local sponsor. Approved qualifications and a specific number of years of experience also may be required. Documentation of all registrations and experience is required, and attestation and legal translation are required for all certificates or documents issued outside of the country in which you are registering. The process for submission and approval times will vary.

A working knowledge of the code requirements in the country and jurisdiction also is critical. Because certain codes or code approaches are accepted in Dubai, it does not mean that the same approach will be accepted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Bahrain; Qatar; or Saudi Arabia.

Performance-based design may not be encouraged in all jurisdictions, and some jurisdictions may require demonstration that even a straightforward project exceed the minimum code requirements and include design enhancements for increased safety. Generally, “international” U.S.-based codes and standards such as IBC and NFPA are accepted, but their application to a project in the Middle East must be approved by the local jurisdiction. While some countries officially adopt and amend these codes and standards, others have their own set of codes or municipal regulations, with some influences from non-U.S. based international codes and standards such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Code, British Standards, or Hong Kong Code.

Cultural considerations

Some consider Dubai one of the more westernized and least conservative areas of the Middle East. However, western and other international companies are welcome in most countries. Cultural considerations may have a defining impact on the project schedule and implementation as well as the overall project success. The work week varies in the region. Sunday through Thursday are workdays in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, while Saturday through Wednesday is the work week in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting on the Islamic calendar, project movement is typically slowed, if not halted. Meetings will not be welcome or well-received during this time.

Women are respected as professionals in the Middle East, and there are many successful women in the workforce, not just inside the United Arab Emirates but outside of the country as well. While travel for women is generally unrestricted, there are some limitations on travel into and within Saudi Arabia, particularly for women under the age of 40.

It is not customary for men and women to shake hands with one another anywhere in the Middle East; it is best to wait to see if a woman extends her hand before offering a handshake. In terms of social invitations and meal invitations, it is best to accept an invitation to eat; refusing, even if you are not hungry, is considered impolite.

Additional cultural considerations include the importance of professional and personal relationships and strength of networking in the region, as well as mutual respect among professionals. Agreements among project teams and code authorities may be verbal and based on mutual understanding and trust.

Ali is a senior consultant in the RJA-Dubai office and has been involved in the development of fire and life safety strategies on projects throughout the Middle East. Rashid-Sumar is the director/engineering manager of United Arab Emirates operations