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Lessons Learned from Dubai Hotel Fire
By Mark Wright, Regional Security Director, Brookfield Property Partners
President, Houston High Rise Triad
At 1:00 p.m. on December 31, 2015, many of us in Houston were watching University of Houston dominate Florida State in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl.
In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, it was 9:00 p.m. and the 63 floor Address Downtown Hotel had erupted in flames.
America was likely focused on other things such as the football season finales, or presidential election news so this spectacular high rise fire might have escaped the full attention it deserves.
The Houston High Rise Triad Committee is a private/public partnership established in 1993 after a high rise office building fire resulted in multiple firefighter casualties and the death of a private security officer. Fire Chief E.A. Corral initiated discussions with senior fire department command staff, building code officials, and private sector representatives directly engaged with life safety training for high rise building staff members. Over its history the High Rise Triad has been instrumental in developing life safety standards that were ultimately incorporated into fire marshal directives and local codes.
In January 2016, the Houston High Rise Triad assembled a sub-committee study group to analyze the Address Downtown Hotel incident. Chaired by Houston Fire Department District Chief Jeff Crow, the sub-committee sought to identify the sequence of events, the responses of building occupants and first responders, and how things were handled in the fire’s aftermath. From this process the sub-committee developed the following findings and lessons learned.
It is believed that the fire started when an exterior light fixture shorted out on the 20th floor igniting the building’s exterior cladding. This cladding was not prohibited by UAE fire or building codes until they were updated in 2013 after a series of other high rise buildings burned due to the combustible nature of the exterior cladding materials.
On New Year’s Eve, flames rapidly spread up the side of the hotel reaching its apex within only 10-15 minutes. The fire was contained to one side of the building due to the fire doors and other safety features of the building working as designed.
Down below, huge crowds had gathered in the streets and plazas of the downtown district to watch the fireworks show planned for midnight at the nearby Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Fortunately, the fire ignited on the upwind side of the structure opposite from the direction of the Burj Khalifa. This meant that the fire and smoke was blown away from the crowds below and the major collections of people gathered inside the structure to view the fireworks at midnight were generally on the opposite side of the structure from the flames.
The 63 floor Address Downtown Hotel was completed in 2008 at an estimated cost of AED 845 million. . The building houses 626 residential units and 196 hotel rooms comprising 1,920,000 sq. ft. The building was built under the applicable building and fire codes. According to all accounts, the building systems such as sprinklers, automatic fire doors and fire alarms, functioned as designed.
The exterior cladding was identified as fire-rated, but the company supplying the product is now under review for potentially falsifying test results.
Experts say most of Dubai’s approximately 250 high-rise buildings use cladding panels with thermoplastic cores, the newspaper said. Panels can consist of plastic or polyurethane fillings sandwiched between aluminum sheets.
Such cladding is not necessarily deemed hazardous, but it can be flammable under certain circumstances and, depending on a skyscraper's design, may actually channel a fire through windows and into the interiors of buildings.
Based upon information gained through media and other accounts, the following dynamics occurred during the initial response:
As almost is always the case during a major fire incident, communications and coordination were problematic. When multiple agencies are responding to any incident the ability to coordinate response personnel and equipment is very difficult should inter-agency communications breakdown.
Based on personal accounts from building occupants through social media, some staff members were panicked and screaming “fire” and “evacuate” to occupants. This caused several occupants to panic and create additional stress on the responders. It is quite possible that these building personnel were already on-site as additional security for the upcoming fireworks show, hence their seeming lack of familiarity with emergency response protocols.
Imagery from YouTube videos reveals that many of the building occupants were taking full suitcases down the stairs when they evacuated, resulting in significant safety issues due to congestion and a back-up within the emergency stairwells.
Sources reported that critical building access keys were not immediately available to arriving fire response teams. It is possible that building personnel had not been trained on the location of the keys, but the keys may not have been provided for emergency responders.
While there were 16 people injured in this incident, the lack of fatalities was due to the following factors:
The event happened at a time when the entire occupancy of the hotel was awake due to the New Year’s Eve event taking place nearby at the world’s tallest skyscraper, Burj Khalifa.
The Fire was on the exterior of the building allowing occupants to self-evacuate the building safely.
The building owner’s Fire Response Team was on-site immediately and coordinating the efforts until the arrival of the fire department. According to eyewitness accounts, without this response team’s coordination, there would likely have been other injuries and/or fatalities.
The building systems performed as designed and the structure maintained its fire ratings, containing the fire to the one elevation of the hotel exterior. Had the fire spread throughout the floors, the hotel might have come down with a complete structural failure.
Review and inspection based upon accepted building codes and fire codes are a very critical aspect of city and state government. The active advance of knowledge on the part of building officials is a critical need when new building materials and processes are being introduced at an ever increasing pace.
Building strong relationships with local response agencies are a critical part of emergency planning. Building owners need to understand the needs of first responders and actively engage with those agencies during the emergency planning process.
Building occupants need access to basic emergency training.
When possible, staged evacuations in high rise buildings are needed to limit over-crowding of exit stairs. Instances of over-crowding stairwells have been known to result in a stampede mentality causing serious injuries.
Building personnel should know what is expected from first responders. First responders should know what to expect from building personnel. This can be accomplished through site orientation visits with first responders. During these site visits, first responders can learn critical building information such as fire hose connection points, fire pump locations, and elevator operations.
Policies and response plans should always be living documents. Conducting exercises and drills will only be of benefit if the lessons learned are captured and updated with the response plans.
The Address Downtown Hotel fire surely provided its ownership and public officials with lessons learned and proved to all that effective policies, procedures, training and communications can aid in effective crisis management planning. Even for those of us half-way around the world, there are very important lessons learned that we need to share.
For more information on City of Houston fire and building codes as well as other important high rise safety resources, please visit the Houston High Rise Triad website at http://houstonhighrisetriad.org/.
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