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‘Safety is a key baseline’

In a conversation with Benwen Lopez of Climate Control Middle East, Alex Chakar, Managing Director, speaks alongside Ihsan Al Sarraf, Head of MEP Department, BH.NS Engineering Consultants, on the importance of hypoxic air technology, design choices and selection of materials, amongst other trends in fire safety. Excerpts from the interview…

| | Apr 16, 2018 | 10:26 am
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Ihsan Al Sarraf

Alex Chakar,

What is the case for hypoxic air technology? As consultants, do you recommend the use of hypoxic air technology for enclosed areas?

Ihsan Al Sarraf: Hypoxic air technology is an innovative fire prevention technology, which is based on a permanent reduction of the

oxygen concentration in a protected enclosed area. As consultants, we recommend this particular technology for infrequently visited confined spaces of a building. In the UAE, we have seen this technology being used in certain areas of banks, data centres and museums.

With [hypoxic air technology], a protected area needs to be sealed from outside air to the acceptable oxygen levels, to keep the contents protected from any fire incident. Hypoxic technology is a clean air technology, which is in line with the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer.

How important are design choices and selection of materials in relation to fire safety?

Alex Chakar: Any design chosen and implemented, impacts the fire safety, either positively or negatively. Therefore, when we adopt new trends, we also study the regulations from a local [UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice] and an international perspective [National Fire Protection Association] to see how these design trends impact fire safety. Even if a design looks right, it has to not just fit in the regulatory framework, but it also has to be fire safe.

Apart from design, we also use the same principles to select building materials used for the development of the building, to determine how safe they are for the environment and how they augment fire safety.

Al Sarraf: In our selected materials, we use special fire sealants, especially around the pipe penetration to enhance the fire resistance. All these materials are tested not just by us but also by civil defence authorities and in third-party labs. In the UAE, we are one of the pioneers in utilising passive fire protection systems for building cladding materials.

Chakar: Another practice that we have changed is the use of bitumen paint. We have replaced it with a cementitious paste application, which has been approved by civil defence authorities. Our engineers and safety bodies have specified these materials in different projects.

Al Sarraf: While specifying fire-rated ducts, we also look at its integrity, stability and isolation. Our duct specifications are as per BSE standards 476. When specifying ducts, [consultants] need to consider the degree of tolerance, although this depends on the fire zone, which could range from two to four hours. The other characteristics of the ducts that need to be considered are their weight and acoustic quality. We have identified local duct manufacturers who are going beyond the code and coming up with innovative ducting systems, which have a high degree of tolerance towards a fire.

What is the level of awareness of the importance of smart fire safety technologies among end-users?

Chakar: As much as possible, we educate our clients on implementing smart fire safety systems, but it varies from client to client, and how much they are willing to spend to adopt the technologies. We have our limits.

Al Sarraf: As consultants, we recommend using addressable smoke and fire detectors and early fire detection gadgets, which are connected to building management systems. When smoke and fire are detected in the early stages, other safety systems are activated, and the situation is controlled. We are also working in collaboration with the authorities to create more awareness on the latest technologies, and there is a realisation of their importance.

We have seen many fires that are related to malfunctioning of HVAC equipment. What can manufacturers and consultants do, on their part, to help reduce the chances of a fire?

Al Sarraf: We have observed that most fires are related to materials used in HVAC equipment. Manufacturers must ensure that the materials used in HVAC systems are fire-retardant. On the other hand, factors such as third-party testing, proper commissioning and re-commissioning by impartial entities need to be considered, because you may have the best equipment, but if it is not appropriately commissioned, it can lead to malfunctioning, thus resulting in a fire incident. After a period, it is also crucial for re-commissioning to ensure the equipment is fire-safe. To ensure that facility owners and operators take commissioning, re-commissioning and maintenance of HVAC equipment seriously, authorities must include these parameters as part of license renewal procedures.

The other factor for safety in HVAC equipment is the type of insulation specified, which must always be high in smoke density. It must also be fire- retardant and toxic-free.

During fire incidents, more than the fire, people die of smoke inhalation, and one factor that contributes to the smoke is the type of cables. Therefore, from a fire safety perspective, we specify low-smoke, zero-halogen cables, as they do not add to the density of smoke during a fire incident.

In the past we have seen fire incidents occurring in under- construction buildings; what can consultants and contractors do to prevent such incidents from happening? Can you also highlight some of the practices that you follow as a consultant?

Chakar: For us, safety is a key baseline, even in under-construction projects, which is why we appoint a dedicated life and safety engineer on every project, who closely works with the contractor and monitors the safety aspects, at all stages of the development, to the extent of checking and advising on how flammable materials should be stored. The engineer sends us regular reports on the progress of the project. In this way, as much as possible, we can prevent any fire incidents from occurring and avoid blaming each other.

Al Sarraf: Fire safety on site is also the contractor’s responsibility, but consultants, too, must work with them, for the best interest of the client and the project. As mandated by the Dubai Municipality, we install cameras in some areas of our projects for better monitoring. We also evaluate the risk factors and share the reports with the client.

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