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03 October 2023

Torch tower fire: 7 vital steps to safety, evacuation

Fire safety experts in UAE look at crucial steps to safety. (Supplied)

By Sneha May Francis

Most people dream of living in skyscrapers but an increasing number are only now becoming aware of the fire risks associated with high-rises.

Although building management provides security guidelines and mock fire drills are conducted, many residents are still unaware about what to do when disaster strikes.

consulted fire safety experts in the UAE to look at the crucial steps to safety.

While the fire safety systems, such automatic fire sprinkler protection installed in high-rise buildings, are designed to control a fire and avoid evacuation, there will be instances where evacuation will be needed.

The key areas are early warning (typically through an alarm or voice communication system), adequate means of egress (exit routes) and occupant familiarity with the plan through knowledge and practice will ensure the safety of the residents.

What residents must do

1.       Once the fire alarm goes off, residents must rush to the nearest safety exist. “Occupants of the fire floor and the floors immediately above and below that need to be evacuated through the safe exist and need to be assembled several floors below the fire floor, and should await further instructions from the fire personnel,” explained the fire safety expert.

2.       If there is smoke in the stairway, use alternate route. “If there is smoke in the stairs or exit route; use alternative stairs as there will always be at least two. In fact, larger buildings will have several.”

3.       Be guided by the voice communication system, which will instruct on which safety route to take. “The voice announcement when the fire alarm sounds instructs occupants not only which floor to evacuate to, but also which stair to take. For example, if the fire is in the northwest corner of the building, you'll be guided to use a stair located on the south or east of the building,” he added.

4.       Work your way down to the exit and head to the muster point which is the designated safe location for the building occupants. “This should be at a safe distance and identified by a well-marked sign and should have been well communicated to all occupants.”

5.       Don’t stand outside the buildings, as some buildings have external cladding and “it’s more dangerous to be outside than inside as these cladding tend to spread the fire and peel off at high temperature.”

6.       Some buildings may allow residents to use elevators. A former fireman in the UK told Emirates24|7 that, “In some buildings, the occupants maybe allowed to use the lifts – if they are designed to be fire protected (the lift shaft, lift, etc.) and with independent power supply from the building power.”

7.       People with disability may be allowed to use such elevators, or escorted to designated safe zone to wait and to be rescued by firemen.

Evacuation plan is specific to each building

“Each building will have its own evacuation plan which should be communicated to each and every occupant. The building should conduct drills and emergency exercise to test the emergency response plan, awareness of the occupants, the functionality of all systems/ equipment that maybe used during an emergency, the knowledge and efficiency of the staff, etc.”

He explained that “building code typically requires stairwells be protected by firewalls with a 2-hour rating. In taller buildings, 4-hour firewalls are required.

Referring to the guidelines listed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the fire safety expert claimed that these are applicable to most high-rises in Dubai.

Why evacuation plan is different for high-rises

According to the fire safety expert, the evacuation process for high-rises are different “because of the sheer number of floors and the high number of people who would need to travel many flights of stairs during evacuation”. He added that sometimes the evacuation could take two hours or more.

But, in principle, the approach is the same. “Get early warning, find the nearest exit route and get to the stairs/escape route and work your way down to the exit and head to the muster point which is the designated safe location for the building occupants.

Why mock drills should be routine

The official added that although not mandatory for all buildings, building authorities must schedule routine drills when practicable.

“The building management can arrange an awareness session once every six months and invite occupants to attend and sign off on the attendance sheet. This will be beneficial in the long run,” he added.

“Each building must have an emergency response plan (ERP) drawn up as part of the final approval and permission from Civil Defence to start occupancy. The ERP will have all possible emergency scenarios mentioned and possible escalation scenarios and how to prevent, mitigate and manage.

“This information should be communicated to the building staff, who will step in during the crisis, and to the occupants and a signed declaration that they have read and understood it.

Don’t rush to the roof for rescue

“Never. Rescue from the roof is difficult and more dangerous as it is subject to the wind speed, fire spread, smoke, etc. also the buildings are designed to be compartmentalized that means self-closing fire doors and fire rated walls that restrict the fire to the source location and prevent the unrestricted spread through the building.

“Hence, only the floor immediately above and below the fire floor should evacuate via using the emergency escape route / stairs and assemble several floors below the fire floor, and await further instruction from safety officials.

Not safe to stand outside the burning building

The official informed that residents of the neighbouring high-rise need not be evacuated, but they must be “aware and prepared”.