Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2020.

Promises Made

Three years after Grenfell, officials vow to replace combustible facades in parts of Europe and the Middle East. But experts remain skeptical.


Government officials in the United Kingdom as well as the United Arab Emirates recently vowed to strip dangerous, combustible cladding and other exterior wall components off hundreds of existing high-rise buildings. Experts hope officials will make good on those promises, but worry that the complexity and cost of cladding-replacement projects will hinder those efforts.

“It’s encouraging to see that governments understand the need to replace combustible cladding on high-rise buildings, but we have seen promises made before with action not taken,” said Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of Applied Research at NFPA. “Replacing cladding is a complicated and expensive task, so promises that are not followed by a financial commitment are likely to fail.”

On May 10, officials in Sharjah, a city near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, said they had identified about 150 buildings in the city that needed to have their cladding replaced. “[We] are working to amend them and replace them with safe materials,” Colonel Sami Khamis Al Naqbi, director general of Sharjah Civil Defence, told Gulf News. The announcement came five days after a facade fire consumed Sharjah’s Abbco Tower, a 49-story residential building, displacing hundreds of people and injuring a dozen.

Three weeks after the Sharjah fire, on May 26, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for Housing, Communities, and Local Government introduced a new £1 billion ($1.27 billion) Building Safety Fund to assist with the removal of combustible cladding on high-rise residential buildings throughout the UK. That announcement came just weeks before the three-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the world’s deadliest facade fire, which killed over 70 people in London in June 2017.

Whether these governments make good on their promises remains to be seen, but similar promises in the past have fallen short. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, government officials in the UK vowed to replace cladding on more than 400 buildings that had been identified as at risk for fires like Grenfell. By April 2019, however, fewer than 100 had been fixed, according to the New York Times.

“The UK has seen very slow progress in removal of dangerous claddings from high-rise buildings despite many promises made in the wake of the Grenfell fire,” Messerschmidt said. “Hopefully the recently announced additional funding will speed up the process.”

While the two announcements made in May were promising news for fire safety officials, it still represents a small step in the right direction. Sharjah is just one of many cities in the Middle East, for example, that are full of high-rise buildings outfitted with dangerous cladding. “There are many, many towers in the Middle East, high-rise towers, with the wrong cladding,” said Anas Alzaid, the NFPA representative for the Middle East and North Africa regions. “So this is not the end of the issue.” Like Messerschmidt, Alzaid also alluded to the difficulty of projects to remove and replace cladding. “It’s very difficult to change the cladding for 40 or 45 floors,” he said. “The solution is not straightforward.”

Complicating the problem globally is an overall lack of data on combustible cladding systems and facade fires—a phenomenon Messerschmidt reported on in her feature article “Data Void” in the May/June issue of NFPA Journal.

“A surprising fact is that the only way researchers know about the increase in these types of fires is from the media,” Messerschmidt writes. “Even after events like Grenfell, there is still no coordinated global effort to collect data on these or any other fire incidents.”
Gutiérrez tapped as new NFPA rep for Latin America

Jaime Gutiérrez, a government affairs and international business professional with extensive experience overseeing building safety and security, has been named NFPA’s new local representative for Latin America.

“We’re very excited to have Jaime bring his decades of experience to NFPA,” said NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley. “NFPA is committed to improving fire and life safety globally. Expanding NFPA’s presence and purpose in Latin American countries is an important part of this effort.”

Over his nearly 30-year career, Gutiérrez has worked in several private and public sector roles, including at the Mexico Foreign Affairs Ministry, Office of the Attorney General, Health Ministry, and more. In these roles, Gutiérrez oversaw safety and security for large-scale construction projects such as the remodeling of two Marriott hotels and the construction of 28 health care facilities. He holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and management from the National Autonomous University in Mexico and the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, and a master’s in public management from Guanajuato University.

Gutiérrez’s appointment builds on NFPA’s decades-long presence in Latin America. NFPA has established chapters in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, and offers codes and standards as well as training in Spanish. The new addition to the NFPA Global team follows NFPA’s hiring in January of Anas Alzaid, who serves as the NFPA representative for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions.

Global survey highlights COVID-19 impact on wildfire response

Recently published findings from an April survey of wildfire safety professionals from 26 countries shed light on how the global coronavirus pandemic could hinder wildfire response this summer and fall, as well as ways agencies might be able to address these new challenges.

Firefighters in the United Kingdom disinfect a truck after being called to a wildfire. (Getty Images)

The survey was spearheaded by Cathelijne Stoof, a wildfire researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the American Wildfire Experience, and the International Association of Wildland Fire. It was the first in a series of surveys, the findings of which will be published over the coming weeks.

“The requirements put in place to deal with COVID-19 in most countries include some level of restriction on movement, business and social interaction, and in many countries this has taken the form of a lockdown,” the findings say. “These measures for COVID-19 must be considered in the context of fire management procedures, standards and approaches as the Northern Hemisphere enters the summer and the fire season.” The document goes on to list recommendations for how to best approach the situation, such as relying more heavily on local resources to suppress wildfires versus calling on outside agencies and using more vehicles than normal to allow for social distancing between wildland firefighters.

Read the full findings of the survey here

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images