Old buildings most at risk of fire; is Qatar Civil Defence up to the task?
The Villaggio mall fire tragedy in May 2012, which claimed 19 lives including 13 children, has put a huge question mark on Qatar’s building safety standards. How much has changed since the incident?[boxify cols_use =”1″ cols =”2″ position =”right” order =”none” box_spacing =”10″ padding =”10″ background_color =”#3c3c3c” border_style =”solid” ]
Safety measures that buildings should follow
For high-rise buildings:
- All buildings must have a special facility management department that oversees fire safety requirements.
- There should be trained fire captains assigned to each floor who will take charge of guiding people during an emergency.
- Every floor should ideally have a fire safety phone that can be used by fire safety personnel to coordinate with the fire department.
On most occasions, deaths occur due to toxic smoke inhalation, and not the fire itself. Hence, it is important to choose building components carefully.
- Use non-combustible materials such as drywall or gib-board for ceiling tiles and inner walls.
- Low smoke zero-halogen materials should be used for jacket cables passing through ceilings and walls. They reduce the chance of toxic gases accumulating if the wire gets damaged due to an electrical fault.
- PVC pipes that are commonly used for plumbing or electrical purposes are available in different varieties. It’s safe to use low smoke ones instead of the regular ones.
- All air-handling units should have duct smoke detectors installed in the return airside. In case of fire, the detectors shut the units and prevent smoke from spreading in the building.
“The Villaggio fire was an eye-opener for everybody, especially authorities, who have realised the need to push safety measures in every building,” says Mohammed Jaber, Head of Electrical Engineering, at KEO – a leading consulting firm in the country.
It’s not the safety in buildings under construction alone that have to be addressed. It’s the old, existing ones that need immediate attention. “Most of them are not equipped with fire safety protection, something that the Qatar Civil Defence (QCD) should, or probably is reviewing at this stage.
“I have walked into so many buildings, including hospitals and clinics, and wondered how they have got approvals from authorities,” says Jaber.
“As consultants, we are now receiving a lot of requests from developers and building owners on how to make their buildings safe.”
As per the law, buildings in Qatar have to comply with the QCD safety requirements, which are adopted from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. Qatar hasn’t devised its own set of codes, but some of the NFPA codes have been modified according to the climate and type of construction that is carried out in the country, said an official at Civil Defence, who did not want to be named.
The Civil Defence also did not give answers concerning specific cases, and spoke of only the general regulations in place.
Lack of routine checks; does Civil Defence have the capacity?
There’s a certain protocol one has to follow to obtain a building occupancy certificate. This involves regular inspection during each stage. As per an official from Civil Defence, after the certificate is granted, inspection is carried out every two years during the time of renewal of the building permit. In addition, unscheduled inspections are conducted any time of the year.
However, Jaber says, once the building gets a certificate, then that’s it. Further inspections are not carried out, unless an issue is reported.
“Fire systems in buildings need to be maintained well to ensure they function well when required. Authorities need to make sure that every building follows the right maintenance procedure. Mishaps can happen anytime, so we need to be prepared.”
However, in order to carry out regular inspection in every building in town requires a large inspection force, which probably doesn’t exist in the Civil Defence, he says.
Though the number of inspections carried out by authorities remains debatable, a crucial area that has often been overlooked is the manpower being hired for projects.
The civil defence official we spoke to says, “Most of the fires are caused due to cable arcing which goes back to human fault. People who are hired for electrical works don’t have enough of knowledge or experience in this field. This is something that we can’t control.”