Flammable Siding Fuels High Rise Hotel Fire

By ThinkReliability Staff

A fire on New Year’s in Dubai has raised concern with similar building materials across the world. Around 9:30 pm on December 31, 2015, a fire started at a 63-story hotel. The fire quickly spread along the outside of the building. There were no reported fatalities but at least 14 were injured.

Performing a thorough root cause analysis for one specific incident can develop solutions for similar incidents around the world. These types of fires are becoming increasingly common – there have been 8 in the last two decades in Dubai alone. Similar fires have occurred in China, Azerbaijan, and Australia over recent years. We can investigate the causes the led to the New Year’s fire in Dubai by using the Cause Mapping method, a visual form of root cause analysis.

Our analysis begins by capturing the what, when and where of an incident as well as the impacts to the organization’s goals. In this case, the safety goal is impacted due to the injuries. The environmental goal is impacted due to the significant amount of smoke released, and the customer service goal is impacted because of the evacuation. Additional goals impacted include the property damage to the hotel and the labor/time associated with response and repairs.

Beginning with the impact to the safety goal, we can ask “why” questions to capture the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the injuries. In this case, the injuries resulted from an extensive fire that spread up the side of the hotel. An extensive fire requires both initiation and spread. Both the initiation and spread result from heat, fuel and oxygen. The oxygen in both cases was provided by the atmosphere. The heat source for the initiation is believed to be either from exposed wiring (per the local police chief and shown in photographs from before the incident), or a short circuit in a lamp (reported by some news sources). Because it has not been definitively determined, we put a “?” after each cause, and join them with “OR”. The fuel source for the initiation has been reported as curtains. Flammable liquid was also a potential cause but has been ruled out by the police chief.

A burning fire provides heat, so it will continue to burn as long as oxygen and fuel are present. The fuel that allowed the rapid spread of the fire is flammable cladding used as siding. This siding is made of two thin pieces of aluminum surrounding a foam core. Foam cores made primarily of polyethylene are highly flammable. This type of cladding is used because it is considered to provide a modern look, allows dust to be rinsed off during rains, and is relatively simple and cheap to install. While the foam core can be made of flame-resistant materials, this was not required for this building. After a similar fire in Dubai in 2012, new regulations banned the use of flammable material as cladding, but existing buildings (including this hotel) were not required to be retrofitted. The cladding was installed continuously, which allowed the fire to rapidly climb up the side of the building.

While electrical faults that can act as heat sources should be repaired as quickly as possible, the flammability of the materials used on high-rise buildings with multiple potential heat and fuel sources (and a nearly unlimited supply of oxygen) have raised significant concern, not only about this hotel or Dubai, but about buildings with similar cladding around the world. Says Peter Rau, the chief officer of Melbourne, Australia’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (where a similar fire broke out in November 2014), “You know you’ve only got to step back a little bit further and say: ‘What does it mean for Australia and what does it mean (when) you’re talking to me from Dubai? This is a significant issue worldwide, I would suggest . . . There is no question this is a game changer.”