Buildings disable smoke alarms

One of the capital's biggest landlords is accused of banning smoke detectors from new apartments because of false alarms.

Abu Dhabi- May 12, 2008-Smoke from a fire in Port Zayed pours over the city May 12, 2008 in Abu Dhabi.   (Andre Forget / The National) *** Local Caption ***  AF001-fire.jpgAF001-fire.jpg
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ABU DHABI // One of the capital's biggest landlords has been accused of banning smoke detectors from new apartments because of false alarms, despite international safety experts insisting the devices save lives. "Smoke detectors are defective and not desired in all flats," said a senior engineer with the Department of Social Services and Commercial Buildings, known as the Khalifa Committee. Residents have recently complained that workers hired by the department were disarming smoke alarms in their apartments, but the engineer, who was not authorised to comment on behalf of the Khalifa Committee, would not confirm that was the case.

He did confirm, however, that kitchen "heat detectors" in newer homes are now replacing smoke alarms, which almost always sound the first warnings of fire. "Smoke detectors are always making too many false alarms from cooking and bukhoor [scented wood chips], so that is why Civil Defence eliminated smoke detectors from flats maybe 15 years back," he said. But fire prevention experts say smoke detectors are essential "life-saving devices". Heat detectors are "property-saving devices" that are activated when temperatures climb to about 70°C, they warn.

"At that temperature, it usually means there is already a serious fire," said Adhma Ram, who runs the Abu Dhabi branch of the Dafoos Fire Protection group, which specialises in fire safety equipment. Smoke detectors, on the other hand, are recognised as the best means of alerting house occupants to a fire before it gets out of control. Most deaths in residential fires are attributed to smoke inhalation and parts of the US, Canada and Australia require residential smoke alarms by law.

Local fire regulations call for a smoke detector in the corridor on every level of an apartment block, along with two fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system. The Khalifa Committee, which manages thousands of flats and offices but is due to transfer its portfolio of buildings to Abu Dhabi Commercial Properties this month, considers the alarms to be non-essential. For that reason, occupants of newer flats would rarely find smoke detectors, the Khalifa Committee engineer said.

Some residents have claimed the department's maintenance workers have told them they were hired to silence smoke alarms as part of regular fire system updates. Sanaa Marhaben, who has lived in the 21-storey Nasser bin Mazker Towers on Electra Street for five years, said a workman from the contractors Thani Murshid Establishment (TME) recently visited her flat for routine repairs and disconnected the wires to the smoke detector.

"He said to me, 'I was sent to cancel all the smoke alarms in the building. You already have two fire detectors - one for heat and one for smoke,'" she said. "I asked him to tell me what comes first - is it heat or smoke? And he said smoke comes first." Mrs Marhaben, who has young children, demanded the alarm be reattached. "He told me people in the building cook and barbecue inside, so there's always false alarms," she said. "But how can you leave just the heat detector? A heat detector does not save lives, so you need a smoke alarm."

Munawar Khan, the service manager for TME, confirmed the contractor was hired to work on Mrs Marhaben's building. He would not say whether TME had been ordered by the Khalifa Committee to cancel smoke alarms in flats as part of the fire system update, but acknowledged that false alarms were a problem. Mr Ram said changes must begin with local fire laws. "It is not strict enough here, not even close," he said. "In residential buildings, there won't be any smoke detectors inside the flat, only a heat detector inside the kitchen." He added that contractors converting offices into flats sometimes deactivated pre-existing smoke alarms.

"They should not, but it still happens sometimes," he said. The Civil Defence fire department did not respond to requests for a comment. The Khalifa Committee also gave no official comment.