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Fire Protection Engineering in the Middle East
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Issue 35: Fire Protection Engineering in the Middle East

By Susan Lamont, Ph. D.

The Middle East has seen a boom in construction in the last 5-10 years, which has meant exciting travel and work opportunities for those in the construction industry, including fire protection engineers. In particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are host to a number of fire protection engineers from the US, Australia, UK and Europe. To put this in perspective, the fire protection engineers in the UAE are beginning to establish a UAE based SFPE Chapter, which now has over 90 members on the mailing list. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia already has a well established SFPE Chapter as a result of Civil Defence's (Fire Department's) enthusiasm for the work of the SFPE.

There a number of urban myths about working and living in the Middle East, which are usually related to the weather and lifestyle. The summers are hot and humid, but the worst of the weather is between June and September. During the rest of the year, people enjoy outdoor eating at great restaurants, visiting beach resorts, exploring the mountains or dune bashing in the desert. During June-September, the air conditioned cars and buildings plus the numerous entertainment choices make life here very bearable.

A frequent concern is what it is like working in the Middle East as a woman. Working in the UAE or Qatar is no different to working anywhere else in the western world. Indeed, the local culture is very respectful, and many local women have senior positions in government and the private sector. Local dress is not required for female expatriates, although more conservative countries like Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may require this.

Typical projects are mixed-use high rise buildings – usually containing residential, commercial, hotel and retail, although funding from the government has meant an increase in hospital, school and transport projects. A significant share of the fire protection engineering workload is in developing masterplans and writing design guidelines for the future plot developers, which is a great experience, as most western cities are so well established that new masterplans are rare.

The UAE in particular has been leading the world in building the tallest, largest, longest and most exciting projects. In Dubai, the Dubai Mall has over 350,000 square meters of leasable floor area and houses cinemas, an ice skating rink, an aquarium and an indoor theme park, in addition to the many retail stores. Burj Dubai just opened, and it is the tallest building in the world at >800 m tall. On September 9th 2009, Dubai opened their driverless metro, making the city much more accessible and reducing congestion on the roads.

 

Abu Dhabi is also planning significant public transport networks, and it is currently leading the world in its development of the Masdar eco City. The brand new Formula 1 venue opened in Abu Dhabi on November 1st 2009 to host the last race of the F1 calendar. All of these projects had input from international expat fire protection engineers living and working in the UAE.

Historically, Qatar has grown more slowly than the UAE, but Qatar is also now booming and has an impressive skyline of high rises and plans for tram and rail networks. There are also significant or growing opportunities in Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Each country in the Middle East has its own local code requirements for fire protection of buildings, although most follow NFPA codes or the International Building Code to address the challenges of large new developments. It is imperative that the design team establish the local rules at an early stage to avoid additional costs on the project. For example, most local authorities place significant value on smoke control systems, which may not be required on a similar project in the UK or US.

Local requirements for travel distances can be shorter than permitted by NFPA codes or the IBC, which impacts stair core locations. As most local codes are written in Arabic, local architects and engineers are often employed to advise on local rules and help negotiate building approvals. However, most expatriates are able to navigate the local requirements after a few years of experience as they will have built their own working relationships with the authorities.

It should be noted that fire protection engineers will usually have to be registered with the Civil Defence authority in order to work in the emirate or country. This registration is specific to Civil Defence approvals and is in addition to the normal licences required to work in the country. For some projects, a registered local architect will make all local authority submissions on behalf of the design team, especially if the design is being carried out offshore. This means the local architect is responsible for the approvals process and consequently the fire protection engineer may not have to be registered, but this is not always acceptable to Civil Defence.

Projects are extremely fast track, which means fire strategies have to be developed very quickly and approvals sought as soon as possible. For example, during 2008 the design for a 15,000 seat sports arena in Dubai was developed; the stadium will be complete by early 2010.

 

The scale and fast track nature of typical projects pose challenges for all stakeholders and parties. From a fire safety point of view, fire protection engineers are often needed to adopt performance based solutions to address the challenges of the project, but this in itself can be difficult because the time demands on the approving authorities mean they have limited resources to review solutions. When performance based design is embraced by all parties, the results are great design solutions of which the client, engineer and authority can be proud. As examples, performance based designs have been used to permit buildings to be closer together (building to building fire spread issues), to permit optimized passive fire protection and to permit extended travel distances supported by engineered smoke control systems.

Like the rest of the world, the UAE has also been affected by the global recession. A number of the more iconic projects have been simplified or put on hold in favour of more cost effective designs. Consulting fees are more competitive because there is less work, but overall, it appears that the market has simply adjusted to a more steady and sustainable growth.

As a consequence of the fast track construction that has occurred over the last 10 years, there are now a number of existing assets that will need to be maintained for the future. Civil Defence and the fire protection community are working together to learn from these projects, and where necessary establishing solutions for better design, quality control, site inspection, maintenance and testing moving forward. Many of the Civil Defence departments are now developing new local codes in Arabic and English based on lessons learned to date.

The future of the Middle East is likely to see steady growth with greater focus on maintaining existing assets and developing the transport infrastructure for growing populations and cities. Building projects will continue but at a slower rate than the last 5 years, with sustainability high on the agenda. Fire protection engineers will continue to be in demand to support this development.

The opportunities in the Middle East are numerous and definitely worth considering for those planning to work abroad as a fire protection engineer.

Susan Lamont is with Arup.


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