Life safety in buildings
Ged Smart on the need for usage of safety systems in buildings
Following the recent tragic event in Qatar I felt it appropriate to detail my experience in dealing with the implementation of life safety systems in buildings in the region. We do not profess to be fire and life safety experts but are often called to undertake fire and life safety audits of existing buildings, and as MEP designers are often involved in the design, testing and commissioning of such systems.
Various aspects of NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and BS (British Standard) codes dominate and are mandatory in most GCC countries. It is worth noting, however, that there are a number of old buildings that have little or no fire or life safety systems installed. Even where they are, they may not be operational.
While the take-up of best practice in design of fire and life safety systems for most new buildings in the Gulf region is considerable, there are a number of issues that contribute to severe shortcomings in their operation once the building is occupied.
Problems generally start with the poor quality of installation during construction, which is further compounded by inadequate testing and commissioning prior to being occupied. This is often despite the fact that there are clear standards, specifications and approvals procedures which include Civil Defence approvals.
Within the industry it is well known that commercial pressure and construction program delays that squeeze the testing and commissioning stage exacerbate the problem. We have, in the past, been asked to review systems in occupied buildings which don’t have formal Civil Defence approval.
Assuming the fire and life safety systems are functioning at the point the building is handed over, often within a very short period of time, systems or parts of systems become inoperable. This may be because spares are not available, systems are isolated or disabled, or just lack of knowledge on the part of the building operator.
The FM industry in the region is still in its relative infancy and perhaps the level of knowledge, awareness and technical expertise of those responsible for maintaining fire and life safety systems is lacking in some areas. Having a service contract in place with a reputable specialist maintenance company is no guarantee that your systems will always be left in working order.
Irrespective of who manages a building, regular testing of installed systems should be carried out, of fire detection systems, fire hose reels, extinguishers and emergency lighting systems.
Fire drills should be considered an essential part of ensuring that building occupants recognise a fire alert and are familiar with what action to take in the event of an alarm.
Fire drills also ensure that those responsible for building evacuation act in accordance with the procedures adopted for the building in question. Larger corporations, especially those that own properties and understand corporate responsibilities, are very particular about undertaking fire drills on a regular basis.
However, multi-tenanted buildings often suffer from poor maintenance, and fire and life safety systems often fall into partial or complete disrepair.
Whilst local Civil Defence forces seem to play an active role in ensuring fire and life safety systems are incorporated into building designs and installations during construction, there appears to be little evidence of post-occupancy inspections, usually due to a lack of resources. Hopefully, the recent events in Qatar may herald an increase in the number of building inspections carried out by Civil Defence or other statutory authorities.
In many jurisdictions, building owners and operational managers are responsible for ensuring the safety of occupants. If you fall into this category, it would be prudent to ensure that fire and life safety systems within your buildings are functional.
Some of the items building owners may wish to review include: fire fighting systems operation including sprinkler & deluge system, wet and dry risers, fire hose reels and smoke clearance and staircase pressurisation; fire detection system operation; emergency lighting system operation; adequacy of fire compartmentation and fire stopping; use and operation of fire doors; placement of fire & life safety notices; relevant maintenance and service agreements for systems including inspection records; and fire & evacuation procedures.