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Flammable high-rise panels banned by revised fire code in UAE

New regulations come after latest 34-storey blaze rips through Tamweel Tower in JLT

Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/ Gulf News Archives
The Tamweel Tower. The new additions to the fire code notonly ban non fire-rated panels, but also specify that all futureconstruction projects must be approved by the Civil Defence.
Gulf News

Dubai: A new national fire safety code has been amended to bar the future application of highly flammable exterior cladding panels on medium- and high rise towers, Gulf News has learnt.

Annexures to the new UAE Fire and Life Safety Code clearly spell out new rules banning non fire-rated panels from high rise towers, over 15 metres tall, to stem the spread of a rash of fires in residential buildings as witnessed in recent months.

In the works since April, the changes are being made public following the latest dramatic blaze that ripped through 34-storey Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers last Sunday, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

The rapid response from civil defence teams ensured that there were miraculously no injuries in the wake of the fire.

In a story that is seemingly becoming routine, fire victims — many of whom did not carry household insurance — lost everything as they watched flames race through exterior metal composite cladding across their buildings.

Under the newly amended fire code, however, UAE civil defence officials are moving to prevent similar fires from claiming more structures built in the future, albeit questions remain as to the best way to handle an estimated 500 towers across the country that are currently enveloped by flammable finishing panels.

According to the 30 pages of amendments obtained by Gulf News on Thursday, the new additions to the fire code address cladding specifically and not only ban non fire rated panels but also specify that all future construction projects must be approved against fire risk by Civil Defence engineering departments.

“All cladding panels shall be tested and approved for their combustibility and flame spread classification at the maximum thickness intended for use and intended assemblies and shall not contain foamed plastic insulation at its core,” state the revisions, adding that “non rated material is not permitted unless recommended by panel manufacturers.”

The safety code update states that cladding and other associated materials “shall be tested as an assembly and shall be certified as capable of preventing the spread of heat, fire, toxic gases, smoke or other defined hazards”.

In addition, to guard against black bitumen sealant on the concrete surface below the panels from acting as a further accelerant, the amendments dictate that “any cladding panels installed shall be completely separated from the building interior by a thermal barrier”.

Prior to these new changes, provisions in the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code — introduced in July 2011 — did not prohibit non fire-rated cladding panels, that can burn within minutes as they are filled with petroleum-based plastics compared to fire-retardant panels comprising fire-repellant compounds.

Shaji Ul Mulk, chairman of Mulk Holdings, said he was pleased to see the new regulatory amendments to the national fire safety code.

Mulk’s multinational parent firm owns 20 companies, one of which is Alubond, a metal composite firm that produces non fire rated and fire-rated tiles for 90 countries from its 50,000 square-metre factory in Ajman.

“The new fire code will not allow non fire-rated cladding to be installed on a building that is higher than 15 metres,” Ul Mulk said. “All of the experts have provided their inputs and a civil defence engineering team has come up with the final draft of the fire code. The law will only deal with new buildings [to be constructed].”

Ul Mulk said that the new draft fire code calls for fire-rated cladding to be installed properly using framework and installation materials to dramatically reduce the ability of fire to spread across large tower structures.

Properly installed and approved non fire-rated cladding panels under the fire code, he said, will comprise fire-retardant materials that will help repel intensive heat and flames for up to 90 minutes of exposure on high-rise structures.

An exclusive investigative series conducted by Gulf News in May this year revealed that the earlier draft version of the new fire code did not specifically ban non fire-rated panels from being applied to high-rise towers in the UAE.

Officials said at the time that when certain issues are not covered under the new fire code, UAE regulations default to the standards formed by the US-based National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) but even in the agency’s own NFPA 5000 regulations, non fire-rated cladding panels are not banned.

Civil defence officials, meanwhile, have notified contractors through its e-services that “cladding systems, if any, should be Civil Defence-approved.”