Expert says fire hazards abound in Abu Dhabi

Many of the capital’s older towers are fire hazards, a safety expert has warned.

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Ageing firetraps riddled with hazards The National asked safety expert Norm Labbe to assess some of Abu Dhabi's older tower blocks: this is his alarming verdict Matt Kwong ABU DHABI // Norm Labbe gazed up at a tangled nest of exposed wiring. "Where do you start?" he asked. "This one doesn't even have a pressure gauge," the Canadian health and safety expert said, studying a fire extinguisher that had been left placed on the floor of a small shop at one building in the Al Wahda area. The emergency device was still wrapped in plastic.

In a lobby littered with cigarette butts, a corroded metal box housing the fire alarm system "obviously has not been checked," Mr Labbe said. "It's the basics." The managing director of the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety was touring some of Abu Dhabi's ageing residential apartments as part of an investigation launched by The National in the wake of last month's blaze that ravaged an eight-storey apartment on Airport Road.

With more than 20 years of experience in the field, Mr Labbe's private health and safety training institute lists the Abu Dhabi Airports Company and the Department of Municipal Affairs among its clients. He characterised the state of the emirate's building stock as "poor" when it comes to fire preparedness. During his inspection, Mr Labbe pointed out inoperable fire hose reels, missing fire extinguishers and tangles of exposed wiring.

He estimated one weathered bachelors' accommodation low-rise in the "Tanker Mai" neighbourhood was more than 20 years old. Although the exterior had recently been repainted, the interior had not been maintained properly. Nests of wiring spilled from walls and ceilings. Upstairs, a grimy fire hose was disconnected from the valve. The protective case was missing and the box was littered with pistachio shells, sweet wrappers and cigarettes.

"Water supply should be flowing through this," Mr Labbe said. "This should be covered, protected, checked every year." He also observed scorch marks on outlet plates - an indication that the panels had at one point been overloaded with too many devices. "People plug in stuff and you get a warning signal with a little spark. All of a sudden, you may have a wire that's cut, causes a spark, catches another wire, and guess what? Fire travels through the wiring across the whole building."

"And where's the emergency lighting?" he asked, gesturing at empty sockets above doors to several flats. "If it was at night, 3 o'clock in the morning, the proper way of ensuring a good exit route is emergency lighting, so that if all of a sudden the power went out, you have an independent source to light up an exit route." Resolving the safety issues would be a reasonable expense, he said. In some cases, all it takes is for corridors and exit stairwells to be cleared of clutter.

"We had a whole office retrofitted for Dh1,100. That was it," he said. "That's emergency lighting, fire extinguishers and smoke alarms and emergency exits." Next to the blackened building that caught fire last month on Airport Road, Mr Labbe found that the watchman for a 14-storey apartment block was at least knowledgeable about proper fire safety. Abdul Majeed, from Kerala, had worked in the building for 12 years and was trained to operate fire extinguishers and hose reels. He had already put out his fair share of minor fires, he said.

Mr Majeed said the building might have three fires a year. He said he calls the police, but in the half-hour before their arrival, the fire is finished. Quizzed by Mr Labbe on how he responds to fire emergencies, Mr Majeed explained how he monitored the building's fire alarm control panel and shut down gas and electricity when a fire is detected in a flat. As in the case of the fire last month, small ground-level businesses can put residents above in jeopardy.

Mr Labbe ducked into a small woodworking shop below a residential low-rise and found wiring that had been damaged and taped. "It should be replaced," he said.