Blazing a trail: Behind the scenes with Abu Dhabi's high-tech fire brigade

New firefighting suits and adapted vehicles allow Abu Dhabi Civil Defence to save lives and keep crews safe

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Abu Dhabi's firefighters are to be equipped with the latest protective suits and fire-fighting vehicles to help save lives and keep crews safe.

More than 1,000 personnel will receive new Danish-made Viking uniforms with a special PartX technology that prevents smoke and chemicals from seeping in.

Fire chiefs said the decision would protect fire crews' long-term health.

Firefighters across the globe are found to have much higher rates of cancer in later life due to exposure to smoke and chemicals. Consumer goods made using synthetic materials and coatings release carcinogens when ablaze.

Worldwide, firefighters have suffered cancer in the long run due to the smoke that gets in through gaps in their suits

The new suits were among a raft of new technology shown to The National during a tour of Abu Dhabi Civil Defence's fire station on Saadiyat Island.

“Worldwide, firefighters have suffered cancer in the long run due to the smoke that gets in through gaps in their suits,” said Wael Al Chaalan, division manager at Al Masaood Oil and Gas, which will supply Abu Dhabi Civil Defence with the equipment.

“This was noticed after September 11. The smoke continued for a month after the incident, and while conducting the cooling process, firefighters were exposed to smoke for a whole month.

“Years later, a number of those firefighters started to show symptoms of cancer.”

The Danish-made suits prevent smoke and chemicals from entering through gaps in sleeve cuffs, ankles and zips.

A study of firefighters in the US showed they were almost 10 per cent more likely to develop cancer than the rest of the population. A landmark study last year by University of Central Lancashire in the UK also found smoke and chemicals seeped into suits, remained there unless thoroughly cleaned, and was absorbed into the skin.

Inside the high-tech control room of Abu Dhabi Civil Defence

Inside the high-tech control room of Abu Dhabi Civil Defence

Its authors urged the government to supply crews with better equipment and more suits, so that smoke-logged uniforms would never be re-worn before being cleaned.

“The [Viking] suits have been tested by placing a thermal camera on the firefighter while wearing a normal suit, and again while wearing the PartX suit,” said Mr Al Chaalan.

“The thermal camera showed patches of white on the arms of the firefighters indicating the smoke had touched the skin by entering through the sleeve.

“However, the image developed while wearing PartX did not show any.”

Col Omar Al Shehhi, head of development at Abu Dhabi Civil Defence, said the investment in new gear will ensure crews have the best tools at hand to save lives.

Last weekend, crews tackled two major fires in central Abu Dhabi, on Friday and on Sunday, both in the Nahyan area.

The incidents came days after more than 100 stalls in Ajman's Iranian souq burned to the ground in a blaze seen kilometres away.

Among the new purchases are 'balance balls' that prevent fire engines from rocking and even tipping over when loaded with water. They are fitted inside water tanks to prevent thousands of litres from sloshing around.

The brigade bought the devices for three engines already.

“And the fourth is on its way from Germany,” said Col Al Shehhi.

“It is common for huge fire engines to lose balance at curves and to jerk backwards when they suddenly halt to a stop, because of the weight of the water on board, especially if the tank is half full.”

The new technology has been under trial since June and it has proved efficient, he said.

Fire engines have also been equipped with a new firefighting system from Germany's Schmitz One Seven fire fighting company.

It makes more effective use of water and foam, but allows it to be pumped as high as 400 metres instead of 100 metres previously - crucial in a city with so many residential skyscrapers.

“We can use one instead of two engines at certain fires now. Previously, for a big fire, one engine would not produce enough foam," said Col Al Shehhi.

Furthermore, new oxygen masks have been added to a number of fire engines to help firefighters recover after tackling a blaze. Previously, crews would need paramedics to supply the tanks.

“If the firefighters have difficulty breathing, they can use the masks without the need for an ambulance,” Col Al Shehhi said.