A manual that will help civil defence, local and federal authorities identify and prioritise buildings with flammable cladding that pose the greatest potential risk to residents will be released in February.
The National Fire Protection Association, an international non-profit organisation, will release a Fire Risk Assessment Tool on its website on February 1 to help authorities around the world rate buildings more than 18 metres high with a combustible façade and suggest measures to reduce the danger.
"We see this as a tremendous problem not just here in the Middle East but all over the world. We don't know the extent of the problem in the US yet. Grenfell Tower was a real tipping point for us," said Donald Bliss, NPFA's vice president field operations, at the Intersec fire conference in Dubai on Monday.
The organisation worked with UAE civil defence authorities to train personnel and on the updated federal Fire and Life Safety Code last year.
The manual is the first largescale guide to cover fires that begin on the outside of a building and rapidly climb up the structure.
“We are hoping this will help reduce the danger of exterior cladding and the frequency of fires in all jurisdictions to help address the most critical buildings first. It can help cities that have 20-30, 100-200 or 1,000 buildings to decide which ones they should address first,” he said.
Fire safety in high rise buildings drew international attention in June 2017 when the Grenfell fire in London killed 79 people. In the UAE, five major tower fires have broken out over the past six years, all of which were exacerbated by panels with an aluminium skin covering a thermoplastic core.
Engineering firm Arup has been developing the guide since July following estimates that an ACP fire – or a blaze at a building that uses polyethylene sandwiched between composite aluminium panels – was breaking out every four months worldwide.
“The reason we need the tool because of all the fires that have happened around the world,” said Susan Lamont, associate director of Arup.
“ACP became popular in the 1990s and tends to be in cities that have developed significantly and quickly. Melbourne would be an example as is Dubai.”
The manual is divided into three tiers depending on how highly a building should be prioritised.
Tier 1 prioritisation is reached after authorities ask simple questions to understand which buildings are at risk.
Tier 2 involves actual risk assessment with the authority visiting the building and testing material.
Buildings complicated in structure or with occupants such as hospitals would require fire experts and engineers in Tier 3 that is outside the guide’s remit.
A colour chart screens the risk. The rating hinges on the cladding with mineral core scoring low and plastic foam pushing the risk to the orange or red danger zones.
A building can move up or down the rating depending on prevalence of external sprinkler systems or how protected the fire exit staircase is.
Vertically connected panels create a higher risk because of rapid fire spread.
If a building scores green or blue, it need not be studied further.
The guide provides specific information about different facades and describes exactly what an aluminium composite panel will look and feel like.
The manual also addresses risk by suggesting fire safety measures such as sprinklers, repair, regular testing, replacement of a portion or all the façade.
In the UAE, residents of Tamweel Tower moved back in September 2017 after the cladding was replaced five years after a fire ravaged the 34-storey structure.
Some developers and owners have begun assessments by independent consultants to find out how risk can be minimized.
The information can be downloaded free of cost from February 1 at www.nfpa.org/exteriorwalls