Sunday, 16 May 2010

We didn’t start the fire but we can help to put it out

Barely a month goes by without news of another fire in Sharjah’s industrial area consuming a warehouse or more. In response, the Arabic blogosphere has been united in expressing two concerns: first, over the safety of the civil defence workers and employees of companies affected by the fires, and second, over why there have been so many fires in Sharjah to start with.

Sadly, fires are not uncommon throughout the Emirates. Dubai’s brave fire fighters battled a blaze in the Atlantis hotel’s lobby a few weeks before its opening. There was the infamous Al Quoz fire in 2008, which General Saif Al Shafar, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, described as the biggest in the history of the UAE with losses of nearly Dh900 million. Last December a fire gutted an eight-storey building in the UAE capital, injuring 36 people. Dubai’s fire fighters are frequently seen assisting their colleagues in Sharjah when a fire breaks out, which serves as testimony to the brotherly ties between the emirates.

The truth is that fire fighters can only do so much since their work is not preventive. Many of us in the UAE wonder why there aren’t more fires. We see people smoke in their cars in petrol stations and building construction that appears to flaunt fire safety laws and the regulations that require certain distances between structures.

Often roads that lead to warehouses are blocked day and night by parked cars and, to make matters more difficult, the lack of an address system in the UAE makes it impossible to find a location without referring to landmarks nearby. And finally, the most important factor in the entire equation, there is a human element. The public must be made more aware of the basics of fire fighting, including the storage and use of fire fighting equipment within the household.

When I returned to the UAE 12 years ago, I realised that the fire hydrant in front of our office building had not been checked for more than a decade. Fortunately, there had not been any fires. The mere fact that authorities only inspected the hydrant upon completion of the building was a cause for concern. Ultimately, the onus falls upon us regular folks to make sure that fire hazards are contained and removed within our own environments. We cannot just rely on others.

A fire such as the one that broke in the National Paints factory in Sharjah last week is one too many. This time there were no human casualties but judging from recent history it is only a matter of time before the next fire breaks out in the same vicinity. According to the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the industrial area where the paints factory is located makes up some 40 per cent of the total area of Sharjah divided over 17 districts with 60,000 small and medium-sized businesses. This area is the workshop of the UAE, which is what also makes it prone to fire hazards.

The day of the National Paints fire in Sharjah, Al Ittihad newspaper had reported that the Sharjah Emergency Committee of Industrial and Commercial Establishments in charge of fire inspections had stopped working with 10 fire- fighting supplies firms because they had supplied counterfeit products. The UAE needs an overhaul of rules and regulations as well as stiff punishments and deterrents against such culprits. The sale of counterfeit fire fighting equipment in any city in the county creates the potential that it will find its way into a home or business and endanger human life.

However noble and hard working the four-year-old Sharjah Emergency Committee is, it is only staffed with 98 people who must cover tens of thousands of establishments in the industrial areas to ensure that they employ the latest fire fighting equipment and procedures. This is a gargantuan task.

Abu Dhabi has announced that it will be the first city in the Middle East to implement the International Fire Code this year, which will “require buildings to clearly indicate fire exits, have smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and alarms that will alert occupants of any emergency situations”. This superb initiative could be replicated throughout the country under a single authority since fires know no borders.

While it is unlikely that the risk of fire can be eliminated outright, it is possible that the authorities can shift some of the responsibilities for basic fire prevention to the public, significantly increase the number of inspections, and strengthen the punishments for flaunting fire safety rules. Since this work involves the collective safety of those who live in the UAE, it should involve a federal response.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 16th May 2010

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