A Case Study: NYE Fire Downtown Dubai

A Portent of Tragedy and the Importance of Crisis Management Planning

Background and Setting

On 31st December 2015 the New Year’s Eve celebrations were getting underway in Downtown Dubai. An annual event that attracts in excess of 700,000 people and a worldwide television audience.

At the time I was working as the Assistant Director of Security for the Burj Khalifa and was involved in the contingency and crisis management planning, crowd control, security and staff deployment and training for the NYE event. Later that evening an incident occurred where my skill set was called upon; soon after the incident my job role changed to the Assistant Director, Emergency and Contingency Planning – Emaar Security Group

Downtown Dubai is a large, mixed-use complex which is the flagship development of Emaar Properties. It encompasses the world largest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall; the Worlds Tallest Building, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Opera House, three 5 star rated hotels as well as residential houses, and apartment buildings.

The site is set around the Dubai Lake which houses the Dubai Fountain tourist attraction, a huge choreographed dancing fountain system. The Dubai Fountain is larger than the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas and is designed by the same team.

For the NYE event a large part of the crowd gathers on the main inner boulevard that encompasses the site.
Members of the local royal family, Diplomatic dignitaries and VIPs are entertained at several locations within the inner cordons. Paying guests are seated on terraces at restaurants at the foot of the Address Downtown Hotel, one of the three five star hotels on the site, and in and around the Dubai Fountain. While hotel guests may watch from their rooms or the hotel restaurants.

The Address Downtown Hotel, although dwarfed by its neighbour the Burj Khalifa, is just over 300 metres tall and spans some 63 floors. Notwithstanding its hotel rooms it also includes 628 private residences ranging from studios to one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom variants.

  • Each year a very large event management operation is in place to deliver the NYE fireworks, fountain, lights and music show, this includes:
  • Contingency and Crisis Management Plans
  • Senior Officers of the Emergency Services
  • Senior Officials from Dubai Transportation, Municipality and Utilities Companies.
  • Senior Management of Emaar Properties, myself included.
  • 350 firefighters
  • 400 police officers
  • 200 paramedic staff
  • 500 Private security staff
  • 200 volunteers (public information and support staff)

The Incident

At approximately 21:28hrs a small fire began on a 23rd floor terrace of the Address Hotel, within 5 minutes the fire had grown to engulf more than 5 floors above the 23rd floor and within 15 minutes the whole face of the hotel facing the Burj Khalifa was engulfed in flames and rising.

Compounding the already serious incident was that the falling burning material and debris was setting light to floors and terraces lower than the 23rd floor and putting neighbouring buildings at risk.

  • On initial discovery:
  • The crisis management plan was enacted
  • A full evacuation was underway, even though the fire alarms inside the building had not activated.
  • Civil Defence (Fire Service) were on the scene tackling the situation
  • Police and Emergency Response Units were on the scene
  • A member of staff pulled the manual fire alarm on the third floor
  • And yet the fireworks display went ahead as planned.
  • No member of the public, hotel guests, hotel residents or staff were seriously injured or died as a direct result of the fire; however, there were around 40 casualties related to crush and crowd impact injuries.

Tragically there was reported some indirect deaths, one of where a person died of a heart attack which is thought to have been brought on by the stress of the incident; and unfortunately one fire fighter later succumbed to smoke inhalation and died in hospital.

The immediate aftermath

All hotel guests and residents were without a place to stay or live.

Pending possible Insurance claims, both on behalf of individuals and the owner Emaar, an investigation was launched into the cause of the fire. Initial rumours suggested a BBQ or Shisha being operated by guests on a room terrace on the 23rd floor circulated. It was later attributed to a short-circuit on a spotlight on the terrace where the fire began.

The 300+ Hotel staff, largely expatriate in its composition, no longer had a place of work.

No Memorandum of Understandings or recovery plans existed.

The speed at which the fire took hold of the building’s outside cladding and its ferocity was attributed to the cladding on the building and the wind causing a “CHIMNEY EFFECT”. The fire fed itself as the heat intensified and negated the existing fire resistance of the cladding.

Although the cladding itself had a good fire resistance rating it was a pre-2013 rating and considered out-dated and as the cladding and its mounts melted in the heat, burning material falling from the building ignited fires at lower levels and on the roofs of a few neighbouring buildings.

Recovery and Lessons

No recovery plans existed; recovery was achieved by the financial strength of Emaar and the emirate of Dubai. As a result of this fire and other similar fires in the United Arab Emirates Building plans were revisited to look at cladding and the fire protection ratings for cladding were revised.

Cladding models in use at the time on other Emaar buildings were inspected and moves made to look to changing any that might be flammable or likely to cause a “CHIMNEY EFFECT”. Dry riser and other firefighting couplings on buildings were checked and correctly labelled for their intended purpose.

As a result of the finding of the investigation Emaar was able to rebuild and refit the hotel through insurance pay-outs and government assistance. This took just over two years.

The hotel guests were found rooms in other Emaar hotels within the downtown area and given a daily payment of 400dhs each during the length of their stay.

Residents were given rooms in other hotels or provided accommodation in apartments within the downtown area. Initially they too were given a daily payment of 400dhs each. This was later withdrawn. Slowly these residents, who were mainly rent paying, found new places to live.

The 300+ hotel staff were initially found positions within other Emaar hotels and properties where they could work. Over the coming 8 months the increase in staff became a budgetary issue for the “adopting” business entities and slowly the staff were laid off. Most were given written assurances that once the hotel opened again for business, they would be offered their old position back.

An unprecedented event on this scale was too much for the perceived risk mitigation processes previously put in place. Unfortunately, crisis management plans did not and could not deal with a fire on this scale, and so became almost immaterial. Staff had to fall back on their training and direction from senior staff and emergency respondents to be able compete with the incident as it unfolded.

The one factor that allowed the successful evacuation of the building was the simple fact that the emergency services were already on location and in large numbers. Had it been on any other night then it could have had a very different and more devastating outcome.

Crisis management plans were revisited to included actions for multiple fire events in a single high-rise building and included external fires taking hold in cladding; something which had not been considered in detail previously.

It was only just over 18 months later that the UK was to experience the devastating and tragic effects of this type of fire.

Our hearts will always be with those who have lost their lives and our thanks that their sacrifices might help save others in the future.

Andy Smith, Operations Director