Sharjah: Officials have tightened building safety rules after a series of fatal falls from high-rises.

Sharjah residential apartments, new and old, should now have window safety locks and at least 120-cm-high balcony railings. Window sills must also be at least a metre high from the floor level.

The new requirements by Sharjah Municipality follow several fatal accidents involving children and adults falling from buildings.

There have also been suicides from towers recently.

At least a dozen people, including children, construction workers and maids, have fallen to their deaths since August while more than 20 people have died in 10 months this year compared with 10 deaths last year.

Residents meanwhile have been left shocked and bewildered at the spate of incidents.

Officials warn that despite new safety rules, parental neglect can lead to more such tragedies. Some of the children who fell had been left alone at home by parents.

Civic and police officials are stepping up efforts to minimise the risks.

Gaith Al Shamsi, the municipality’s head of building permits, told Gulf News they had already started circulating the new building codes.

He added that all construction, engineering and consulting offices in the emirate have been given copies of the safety codes.

Al Shamsi said the municipality has decided to make modifications to windows and balconies in all residences in the emirate to boost security and prevent the fall of children from open windows and balconies.

He also stressed furniture should be kept away from windows so children cannot use them to climb on to windows.

The municipality has formulated new regulations to make it obligatory for building owners and contractors to install high window and balcony railings with a minimum height of 120cm – up from the current 100cm, Al Shamsi said.

It has also decided that all residential apartments should install resistance locks so windows cannot open more than five to 10cm.

“Children should not open windows more than 10cm without the help of an adult,” he added.

He called upon residents, owners, contractors, engineering offices and other stakeholders to cooperate with the municipality in implementing the requirements.

The municipality will inspect residences to ensure the new rules are being followed.

Al Shamsi also urged people not to use balconies as storage space as that can help children to climb over railings. “Besides, keeping things in balconies distorts the image of the city.”

The municipality is ready, he said, to assist any person in applying the requirements.

“Any change in the windows and balconies will require the approval of the municipality to make sure the change will not affect the security and safety of residents and the appearance of the city,” he said.

He pointed out that “not all falls occurred due to a fault in the building or its design, but rather most of them occurred due to parental neglect.

“Parents should take all precautionary measures for their children’s safety but they should do it in a manner that is consistent with the building’s original drawings.”

Fire hazard

He said that safety grilles, which some tenants install, can pose a hazard and obstruction in case of fire.

“A fire broke out last month at an apartment because a family was cooking on the balcony. If [tenants] put safety nets up, the inspectors’ vision will be blocked and they’ll not be able to see what’s going on behind it.”

He said tenants’ requests submitted to the Technical Department will be forwarded to Sharjah Civil Defence to ensure the alterations do not pose a fire hazard.

Brigadier General Abdullah Al Suwaidi, director-general of Sharjah Civil Defence, said part of the responsibility for child safety lies with parents, “who are unaware of the seriousness of leaving a child alone at home”.

Brig Gen Al Suwaidi added: “Even if the child is at home with the housemaid, that is not enough. Families should always watch their children and no amount of protective measures can compensate for a parent’s absence.”

Police warning

In response to the deaths, Major Ebrahim Abdul Rahman, acting director of media and public relations department at Sharjah Police, warned parents not to leave children unattended at home and to instruct housemaids to keep a close eye on them.

“These kinds of tragic incidents occurred frequently during the course of recent years, leaving a painful and unfortunate impact on the lives of many families,” Maj Abdul Rahman said.

He urged residents to regularly lock their windows.

Maj Abdul Rahman pointed out that despite awareness campaigns by Sharjah Police to educate families on the risk of incidents, “some parents don’t learn a lesson from such advice and guidance, and insisted on repeating the mistake of other parents, which killed their children”.

Maj Abdul Rahman reiterated that parents and guardians must watch their children at all times.

Parents responsible

In Ajman, Colonel Ali Al Matroushi, director-general of police operations, told Gulf News general legal principles stipulate parents are responsible for children’s welfare and safety, and are expected to undertake all efforts necessary to protect them.

Parents can be prosecuted when evidence proves they neglected their children or left them unattended, he added.

Endangering the life of a child under 15 can invite a penalty of one month to two years’ imprisonment. The penalty increases to three years if the child is left unattended.

Article 349 of the [UAE] Federal Penal Code stipulates: ‘Whoever, by himself or by means of others, endangers a juvenile under fifteen years of age, or a person unable to protect himself due to his health, mental or psychological condition, shall be punished by detention for a period not exceeding two years.’

Several cases were registered in Sharjah and Ajman courts but they were shelved as parents had not intended to kill their children.

Tenants dazed

“I don’t think parents should leave little children all alone, even if it’s just for a short while. Anything can happen in that time. You don’t think it can happen to you, but then it does,” said Indian mother-of-two Shabina K., a Sharjah resident.

“Even grown ups should be cautious at all times. There was a construction worker who fell off a building in Al Taawun area a few months ago, while I was waiting for my order at a nearby restaurant. The police and ambulance lights were an eerie reminder of the risks; that really moved me.”

Another tenant in Al Nahda area, where some of the incidents occurred, added that some residents have been shocked by the events. No’man Ahmad, a Pakistani expat, works in a building where a tenant jumped from his eight-floor apartment about two years ago.

“The suicides have concerned some people in the area. We talk about what could have pushed them to do such a thing. I think they may have had job or financial problems, but suicide is not the answer,” Ahmad said.

“What’s especially tragic are the children who died. There are three or four buildings in a row in Al Nahda where this happened.”