Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London could never happen in Dubai, experts say

A tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower fire, which is estimated to have claimed 79 lives in London last week, could never happen in Dubai, panel manufacturers claim, following the introduction of new rules at the start of the year.

Images of firefighters attempting to fight the flames and smoke billowing from the apartment block in Kensington shocked the world on Wednesday.

The fast spreading fire in the 24-storey tower in London has raised concerns in the United Kingdom about the safety of the kind of aluminium panels used to clad the tower block, and which appear to have helped spread the fire.

According to press reports this weekend, Omnis Exteriors manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding.

Omnis was asked to supply Reynobond PE cladding, which is £2 (Dh9) cheaper per square metre than the alternative Reynobond FR, which stands for “fire resistant” to the companies that worked on refurbishing Grenfell Tower. The panels were then installed by Harley Facades.

Many commentators have drawn parallels with images of the Grenfell Tower fire and a number of recent fires in towers in the UAE in which aluminium panels were found to have been a contributing factor.

On New Year’s Eve 2015, a fire erupted at The Address Hotel in Downtown Dubai against which the tower’s owner eventually claimed Dh1.22 billion of damages. Fortunately no lives were lost in the incident. A later investigation found that the building’s cladding was partly responsible for spreading the fire allowing the fire to spread.

However, panel manufacturers say that after tough new rules were implemented in the UAE at the start of the year, something like the Grenfell fire could not happen in Dubai.

Last year, Sharjah-based Alubond, the world’s largest maker of ACM panels and the company that supplied the facade for the Address, scrapped the manufacture of plastic-filled panels in favour of building fire resistant panels.

“It is heartening to know that in the UAE market all the developers and consultants stopped proposing non-fire rated composite panels for the upcoming buildings completely,” said AM Rao, the group director for Alubond global operations.

“As such civil defence regulations are very strict and infallible, while binding all parties involved in the construction with a responsibility to deliver the absolute fire safe systems.”

Rival fire resistant panel maker Alucopanel, which is owned by Danube Group, also claimed that a disaster on the scale of the Grenfell disaster could not happen over here.

“An incident like this cannot happen [in Dubai] after the latest UAE Life & Fire Safety Guidelines have been declared,” said Zohaib Rahman, the head of Alucopanel. “There is no room for any developer to use non-fire resistant panels as they would not be obtain a no objection certificate from Civil Defence. At present Alucopanel A2 is being installed over 20 Mid-rise & High-rise projects in UAE.”

In January new fire safety regulations came into force nationwide.

The amended UAE Fire Safety and Life Protection Code specifies procedures for the installation of cladding and contains detailed guidelines and responsibilities for consultants, contractors and manufacturers.

For the first time, those who break the rules face prosecution and fines of up to Dh50,000.

A key new requirement is that builders will have to carry out regular maintenance on cladding panels and replace them after a certain date.

The Address Hotel fire was only the latest in a long line of cladding related fires to take place in Dubai in recent years.

In July 2016, a fire gutted the 75-storey Sulafa tower in Dubai Marina, with the flames spreading up quickly at least 15 floors of the building.

In November 2015, a fire engulfed three residential blocks in central Dubai and led to services on a metro line being suspended, although no one was hurt.

In February 2015, a blaze gutted one of the emirate’s tallest buildings, also in the Dubai Marina area. It destroyed luxury flats in the Torch tower and prompted authorities to evacuate nearby blocks.

In 2012, a huge blaze gutted the 34-storey Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. It was later blamed on a cigarette end thrown into a bin.

However, other building experts remain sceptical.

“Yes a lot has been done to attempt to improve the type of cladding used in buildings in Dubai in recent years,” said one expert who asked not to be named. “However, we have seen a number of updates to the UAE fire regulations over the past few years – usually after major fires take place – and yet we have still seen more fires. In some cases it has emerged that the type of cladding used in these buildings has not met building standards.”​

lbarnard@thenational.ae