Frighteningly intense flames glowed 51 stories above the street within minutes of the first alarm at Dubai’s Marina Torch residential skyscraper, said Lt. Col. Ali Almutawa of Dubai Civil Defence. At night, it cast a ghostly illumination across the city’s crowded skyline of more than 900 high-rise buildings.

“Severe fire definitely spread upwards,” Almutawa said. “With all the flaming debris coming off the building, it was almost a three-dimensional fire.”

At that stage, responders had no idea how much fire might be developing inside, said Almutawa, DCD director of operations. That the damage remained mostly external is thanks to the building’s sprinkler system, Almutawa said.

“The sprinklers held the fire back beautifully,” Almutawa said.

All the statistics regarding the February 21 fire at the Marina Torch inspire awe. Completed in 2011, the 86-story structure was the world’s tallest residential building until an even taller one opened across the street the following year.

An estimated 1,750 Marina Torch residents were home the morning of the fire. All were safely evacuated with only minor cases of smoke inhalation reported. The only panic came after residents exited the building, Almutawa said.

“It was a bit of a fright once people realized the type of fire going on,” he said. “Standing at the bottom of the building with burning debris cascading down was pretty horrific. That, coupled with the high winds, made for a stressful situation.”

Rising High

Located north of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a regional trading and tourism hub in the Middle East. Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, has a population of 2.1 million people. The city’s high-rise skyline, largely developed in the last 15 years, includes the 163-story Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

With new construction completed almost daily, the high-rise boom is an ongoing challenge for firefighters.

“The risk profile we face is really dynamic,” Almutawa said.

Only two months before the fire, management staged its annual evacuation exercise as required by law in Dubai, he said.

“Our strategic policy requires a complete evacuation drill with fire personnel and equipment present,” Almutawa said. “It allows us to check the management company’s ability to evacuate and integrate their plan with ours.”

He received notification of the Marina Torch fire at 1:48 a.m., almost immediately after the first automatic alarm. From his home to the fire scene took only eight minutes, Almutawa said. The looming flames were initially limited to the west corner facing the Persian Gulf.

“At the level of the fire, the wind coming off the water was in excess of 75 knots,” Almutawa said.

 Investigators would eventually trace the origin of the fire back to a column of apartment balconies rising up the west corner, he said.

“Rules are strict that you cannot have anything flammable out there,” Almutawa said. “No cooking or barbecues. You shouldn’t even be smoking out there.”

Other than a small table and chairs, the balconies tend to remain bare.

“Generally speaking, the weather here doesn’t lend itself to sitting out on the balconies,” Almutawa said.

External Finish

So what fueled the spread of the fire? Evidence at the scene leaves little doubt, Almutawa said.

“The building’s external finish consists of panels made from two sheets of metal composite with an infill of combustible foam which exhibits rapid flames spread upon fire exposure,” Almutawa said. “It gives good insulation against heat and provides an external finish to the building. However, we have found in several instances that it can be quite flammable.”

Authorities banned this particular cladding in 2011. Unfortunately, that was after completion of the Marina Torch.

Before ordering his firefighters to deploy, Almutawa conducted a detailed size-up of the emergency.

“We have very stringent standard operating procedures before we can deploy,” Almutawa said. “We conduct a dynamic risk assessment to be sure our plan is effective and safe.”

Almutawa divided his forces into two 12-member teams. One team assisted with the evacuation conducted by the building management. The other team remained on standby pending further tactical decisions.

In high-rise emergencies, priority to use the building’s elevators is reserved for firefighters. Within minutes of the first alarm, all elevators automatically return to the ground floor. Tenants are directed to two evacuation stairwells that maintain positive pressure to prevent smoke intrusion.

Because the fire was mainly external, smoke inside the building was held to a minimum, Almutawa said.

“All the fire doors performed well,” he said. “There was very little smoke ingress into the evacuation areas.” At first, firefighters aiding the evacuation remained in the lobby to conduct tenants to the building exits. However, the fire now expanding upwards along the west corner forced a change in tactics.

“If the fire took hold in any apartment, the rush of outside air could quickly turn it into a blow torch,” Almutawa said. “That would have made things very difficult.”

The initial alarm only included two floors above and below the fire. Almutawa ordered a complete evacuation of the building. Using the elevators to reach the upper floors, firefighters went door-to-door to warn residents.

“In the middle of the night, people might sleep through an audible alarm,” Almutawa said.

Flames quickly reached the exterior of the 70th floor. However, burning debris spiraling around the building ignited a new fire on the 30th floor of the south corner. As with the original fire, flames began consuming the metal cladding. With fire on two fronts, Almutawa took direct action. Four firefighters were assigned to find the source of the fire and begin work from there. “

With the fire burning on the 51st floor, SOP required that we ride the lift to the floor below that to establish a forward control point or ‘bridgehead’ as we call it,” he said. “Then we used the fire stairs to work our way to the 51st floor.”

Wearing breathing apparatus, the firefighters entered an apartment determined to be the seat of the fire. Tapping an in-building sprinkler riser for water, the firefighters quickly extinguished the few inside flames.

“Heat from the balcony had burned through the glazed doors, rolling fire into the apartment,” Almutawa said. “Very little of it remained because of the sprinkler system.”

Balcony Scene

Extinguishing the fire on the balcony proved to be more treacherous. With the railings burned away, the balcony was little more than an open platform extending from the side of the building.

“Reaching the exterior fire proved extremely difficult,” Almutawa said. “If you could hit it in the right spot, it took the heat out of the fire quickly. But finding a good angle to use the hand line was hard.”

Aerials used by the Dubai Civil Defence reach no higher than the 16th floor (55 meters). Above that, firefighters were forced to secure themselves to the building exterior with rope in order to get water on the exterior.

With as much fire as possible extinguished from the 51st floor perch, firefighters rode to the 70th floor and repeated the procedure, working their way down floor by floor, Almutawa said. Dubai firefighters perfected the technique nearly 2½–years earlier while battling another high-rise blaze.

“That building was only 30 stories tall, so the fire got to the roof,” Almutawa said. “The fire was bigger and denser with burning debris crashing down on the balconies. It taught us to get our guys exactly where the fire is most severe to be the most effective.”

At the Marina Torch, responders even reached the flames with water delivered from the balconies of adjacent buildings.

“You go to an adjacent building, plug into their riser and have a go from their balcony,” Almutawa said. “It’s all a question of getting as much water to the affected parts of the building as you can.”

All this proved exceptionally successful. Within two hours of the original alarm, the fire on the Marina Torch’s west and south corners had been extinguished.

Recognizing the Threat

Successfully battling the Marina Torch fire won the relatively new Dubai Civil Defence worldwide respect as firefighters.

“We get calls from all over asking us about our practices and procedures,” Almutawa said. “We’ve come of age now and would like to share our expertise with anyone out there that needs it.”

Meanwhile, the threat of future skyscraper fires in Dubai remains great, especially for structures completed before stricter building codes took effect.

“We have to identify those buildings,” Almutawa said. “We have to make sure that the owners realize the risk and enforce strict safety practices.

“And firefighters have to upgrade, such as adopting a higher predetermined attendance governing how many stations are mobilized and how much apparatus is dispatched.”