Rapid Response: Quick evacuation likely saved lives in UAE high-rise blaze

Fires on upper levels of high-rise buildings are complex, made even more difficult with the exterior skin burning problem

What happened: Once again, we’re watching what appears to be a “flammable-wrapped” high-rise building burn – this one the Abbco Tower in Sharjah United Arab Emirates (UAE). Early videos of Tuesday’s fire show a building resembling a 48-story candle wick, which provides yet another stark example how building codes and construction materials do matter!

The fire of a still-unknown cause appears to have started on the 10th floor of the structure, spreading to multiple sides and the roof. At least 13 people were injured, but officials were able to evacuate the building, averting significant tragedy as we have seen in other high-rise fires, like the Grenfell Tower in London.

A BBC article included reports that dozens of firefighters worked to put out the blaze in the Abbco Tower using at least a dozen fire engines and drones.

Why it’s significant: Fires on upper levels of high-rise buildings are always complex, made even more difficult with the exterior skin burning problem.

In 2017, the UAE government promised changes and retrofitting requirements after a spate of high-rise fires, many of them involving buildings with aluminum sided cladding. And now, less than three years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Abbco Tower fire again demonstrates the need for strong and aggressive construction building codes and fire department engagement.

The advent of firefighting drones is a fascinating element of next-wave firefighting that we’ll continue to follow from this incident as details unfold. The all-too-common hazards of high-rise firefighting challenge even the best trained and equipped departments. Fire showing from nearly 40 floors worth of building presents a daunting task.

Key takeaways: While the situation is still unfolding, we can already identify some early takeaways:

  • Flammable, non-resistive construction proves time and time again that the inherent vertical and high-life-hazard dangers of multi-story construction far outweigh money saved in cheaper construction methods and materials.
  • Quick action to evacuate, as opposed to shelter-in-place, appears to have averted significant potentially fatal impacts.
  • This is by no means the UAE’s first rodeo with high-rise fires and cladding constructive buildings. Decisive actions by responsible parties will be the only way to stay in front of this ongoing issue.

What’s next: You don’t have to know the ins and outs of this particular residential building in Sharjah to understand that we can expect casualties and collateral damage. The collateral damage was demonstrated in the videos showing portions of flaming cladding and debris falling to the streets and rooftops below.

It is easy to understand that a non-fire-resistive exterior cladding likely fanned the flames seen in the dramatic videos of this incident circling the globe. A look into the UAE’s past with high-rise fires and a quick review of the 2017 Grenfell Tower Fire in London provides a snapshot of what’s to come in Sharjah.

At Grenfell, 72 people died, 70 more were injured, and a malfunctioning refrigerator was pinned as the fire’s origin. In a normally non-combustible building, a malfunctioning refrigerator should have been little more than a nuisance. The flammable exterior cladding of the building fed the flames for a sensational and deadly 60-hour firefight. The code-fault finger-pointing began almost immediately, and a series of inquests and reports promising answers and changes continue to unfold today.

Although Grenfell happened after a 2015 and 2016 spate of UAE high-rise fires, both Grenfell and the UAE experiences resulted in many studies, inquiries, inquests and promises for change. Time will of course tell; however, a 2017 report from the UAE’s investigation at the time estimated that there were 30,000 buildings that would need some form of repair or more appropriately retrofitting to eliminate the non-resistive-cladding problem. While retrofitting 30,000 buildings is certainly no small undertaking, none of it would have been necessary if strong fire code development and execution had been employed from the beginning.

We’ll be following Sharjah and will keep you posted on what we know and find.


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