22 July 2014

Government statistics show a steady downward trend in fires in schools from approximately 1,300 fires in 2000/1 to 700 in 2011/12. However, we shouldn’t become complacent; arson in schools still accounts for nearly 180 fires every year. Technical Manager at the Fire Industry Association, Philip Martin, explains fire risks at modern schools and what we can do to keep your school safe from fire. 

The Changing Environment

Schools are changing places; they are facing budget cuts and increasing demands to accept students of all abilities. Secondary schools are being pressured into concentrating more on vocational studies, which could suggest an increase in laboratory and workshop activities. This could result in a reduced investment in fire safety measures, just as there is an increase in the number of vulnerable people and hazards; a dangerous combination! 

We need to bear in mind that fire safety legislation, which requires a fire risk assessment to be done in all schools throughout the UK is focused on life safety. However, the biggest concern for many school governors’ may be the risk of arson. The life safety fire risk assessment isn’t concerned with property protection but any measure taken to preserve life will tend to protect property. The following should provide a few provocative thoughts which you may find useful when doing your fire risk assessment for your school.

The first question you should consider when carrying out a fire risk assessment is, how can a fire start? This naturally falls into two groups; accidental and deliberate. Not all hazards can be eliminated but they can all be managed. The government guidance on educational premises covers this quite thoroughly. 

The Fire Risk Assessment

When considering measures to prevent arson it helps to use your imagination; stand outside the premises when it’s locked and empty and ask yourself how you would start a fire. Remember, most arsonists come with nothing more than a lighter. That bin full of paper or pile of timber against the wall will start to look very appealing. So, we need to think about physical security and removing or securing combustibles away from the buildings, particularly away from overhanging eaves. We then need to think about intruder alarms and CCTV, both as a deterrent and response. And finally, fire detection and sprinklers. BB100 gives some very sound advice on these matters; just search online BB100 and fire.

As the fire risk assessor you will need to look at the physical fire safety measures, the hardware, and the management of fire safety, the software. Oddly the hardware is probably the easier to assess as you can see and touch it. But the software can be a puzzle. 

You may have detailed procedures and comprehensive records but you need to be confident that they will work if put into practice. It could be useful to ask staff specific questions about what they are supposed to do and what they would actually do. Ask them direct questions about what they know about fire safety and who is responsible for what. 

Taking Responsibility

This raises another question, who’s in control? Getting everyone in academic institutions to work together can be difficult. However, to make the premises safe someone has to take control, both generally and in an emergency. Legally the organisation has to appoint an individual or individuals to be responsible for all aspects of fire safety. If more than one person is given responsibility, they should co-ordinated and share information between them. Everyone in the organisation should be clear about their part in maintaining fire safety. 

It may seem obvious that fire protection equipment like fire alarms, extinguishers and emergency lighting should be serviced regularly. Less obvious thing also need a system of inspection and maintenance such as fire resisting walls, floors (ceilings) and doors, along with fire exits, extract systems (such as cooker hoods), ducts (especially fire dampers in ducts), fire safety signs and notices, fixed electrical systems and portable appliances, to name but a few. 

Much of this maintenance isn’t costly or time consuming. A simple walk around can be sufficient for inspecting and maintaining these and it could be combined with a check of security and general housekeeping. But there are two key points; it has to be planned, and it has to be recorded. A simple logbook can help; the FIA has developed a new logbook which is available from FIA member companies. 

The management of fire safety also needs periodic review looking at various aspects such as, who is responsible for the various aspects of the management system; staff training; procedures (not just the emergency procedures); records of maintenance; supplier contracts and, of course the, fire risk assessment.

Fire drills will prove that the evacuation strategy works. Government guidance recommends a drill is carried out at least once a year and preferably every term. To be effective the drill needs to be planned, people informed and the drill monitored to avoid unnecessary risks (such as accidents on stairs). The results of a drill can give valuable information on planning, training and the effectiveness of the facilities like alarms and escape routes.  Occasionally a full evacuation is undesirable for safety reasons. In this case some form of simulation or desk top exercise may be sufficient but only in exceptional circumstances.

Safe Escape for Everyone…?

Naturally schools should be open to students of all abilities. The premises should be adapted to ensure students can get into the premises and access all its amenities. However, everyone must be able to get out in an emergency. We need to consider people with mobility and sensory impairment and people with intellectual and emotional impairment and how they may respond in an emergency. Think about both the hardware and the software when you ask yourself these questions:

  • Can we use lifts in an emergency?
  • Do we have procedures in place?
  • Have we got properly trained and equipped staff? 
  • Can individuals with special needs be accommodated within the general evacuation procedure or will they require a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP)? 

In the past, schools used to use simple fire alarms systems comprising a few call points and bells. False alarms were rare and the consequences minor. Now most buildings will have an alarm system with automatic fire detectors, mostly smoke detectors that will often be monitored by an alarm receiving centre (ARC). Smoke detectors respond equally to the smoke from fires as well as dust, steam and smoke from burning toast in the staff room, for example, which has led to more false alarms. The FIA has a website dedicated to false alarms, visit www.fia.uk.com/en/cut-false-alarm-costs for more information.

Understanding Your Fire Service

Over the last few years Fire and Rescue services (FRS) across England and Wales are under severe pressure to reduce costs; stations are being closed and the number of fire fighters reduced. Automatic calls to the FRS are frequently ‘challenged’ and, depending on where you are, an automatic signal relayed to the FRS via an ARC would be classed as ‘unconfirmed’. This may result in fewer fire fighters attending initially, the crew arriving at normal road speed (no sirens or flashing lights) or in some cases, not at all.  It’s important that you find out what your local FRS’s policy is. Also, give the ARC instructions to call key holders as well as the FRS and when the premises are occupied, someone should make a 999 call rather than relying on the ARC in the event of a real fire. 

Most people assume the fire brigade will rescue everyone and save the building. This needs to be examined a little more closely. Legally, and morally, if we are responsible for premises and the people on them, that responsibility includes being able to get everyone to safety in an emergency. If fire fighters have to rescue people it indicates we have failed. We should not have to rely on the brigade to evacuate people and that includes people with special needs. Moreover, they will not risk fire fighters lives trying to save your property. This means that once a fire becomes established in a building the brigade will tend to attack the fire from outside which, sadly, often results in the total loss of the building.

Listen to the Experts

Many hold the view that, in all but the simplest of premises, a lay person, even supported by the government guides, would not have the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out a thorough fire risk assessment. Many boards of governors and local authorities are so concerned about this that they only use consultants to do the work. Whether they use a staff member or a consultant, how do they know the assessor is competent? 

Guided by government, the Fire Risk Assessors Competency Council, a stakeholder group supported by the fire safety industry, drafted a set of competency criteria and sign posted ways of assessing the competency of fire risk assessment organisations. These two documents are available from the FIA website: www.fia.uk.com.

The FIA maintains a strong position, advocating any one carrying out work of a specialised nature should work for an organisation which is third party accredited to a UKAS accredited scheme such as the BAFE SP205 scheme. 

So, could we be sleepwalking into a disaster? The answer very much depends on you. We haven’t had a fatality in a day school in many years; let’s keep it that way.

Commercial buildings, non-domestic and multi-occupancy premises in England and Wales are already forced to undertake a 'suitable and sufficient' fire risk assessment carried out under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

While the overwhelming majority of premises do this, if the assessment is thought to have been carried out to an insufficient extent, the Responsible Person can face an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison.