Why passive fire protection is a sensible investment for schools

Effective and well-maintained passive fire protection should be a key feature of the fabric of every school building - and not only because it helps to keep students and staff safe in the event of a fire.

Association of British Insurers statistics show that there are more than 1,500 fires in schools and other educational establishments each year, causing disruption to the learning of more than 90,000 students.  

The fires, whether accidental or arson, also result in financial loss running to tens of millions of pounds. While the bulk of that burden falls on the insurance industry, it inevitably means higher insurance premiums to be found from already stretched education budgets.

However, insurers do react positively to the implementation of safety measures and having third-party certified passive fire protection measures in place can help to reduce premiums.

What is passive fire protection?

Passive fire protection is a set of measures designed to significantly slow the spread of flames and smoke through a building in the event of a fire.

By installing fire barriers in walls and roof cavities, the right type of fire doors and fire-resistant glazing, it is possible to divide a school building into compartments. These compartments can contain a fire and smoke for between 30 and 120 minutes, providing sufficient time for the school’s evacuation plan to be executed and the fire service to arrive to deal with the blaze.

The primary benefit of this is that if the fire occurs during school hours, the chances of all students and staff escaping without injury is greatly improved. But it also limits damage to premises, which reduces both the amount of disruption to teaching in the weeks and months after the fire and the size of the repair bill.

If the passive fire protection contains the fire in the area of the school in which it starts, it often means that other classrooms can be returned to service quickly. However, if the fire spreads, there is likely to be widespread damage caused not only by flames, heat and smoke, but also by water from a sprinkler system being deployed throughout the building.

What is third-party certified installation?

To be effective, passive fire protection needs to be correctly installed and maintained. If gaps are left in fire stopping measures when they are fitted, it gives a path for flames and smoke to spread quickly, which can endanger lives and result in extensive damage that could have been avoided.

Unfortunately, the use of non-specialist installation contractors was widespread in the past, leaving many buildings with a worryingly low level of fire integrity. The fire protection industry decided to tackle that problem by launching third-party certification schemes, managed by UKAS accredited certification bodies, designed to drive up standards.

The schemes see accreditation bodies undertake multiple assessments to evaluate the competency of installers. Regular audits of the contractor’s procedures and processes are completed to confirm the scope of the work they can do under certification. These are backed by inspections of work in progress to confirm tasks are being completed to a standard that provides the maximum level of fire integrity.

At the end of every installation at a school building (new build, refurbishment or remediation project), third-party accredited installers can issue a Certificate of Conformity that provides documentary evidence that not only has the specified passive fire protection been fitted, but that the system is fit for purpose. These certificates can be supplied to Building Control, the local Fire and Rescue Service and insurers, contributing towards legal compliance and often helping to reduce insurance premiums.

Checkmate were among the first companies to identify the need to drive up standards, and we are proud to have both been founding members of the BRE / LPCB passive fire protection certification scheme and to have maintained our accreditation ever since.

Maintaining passive fire protection

Passive fire protection measures need to be properly maintained to be effective and that can be a particular problem in a school environment. Fire doors are susceptible to damage from being wedged open or vandalised, electrical and IT repairs can result in fire barriers being drilled through to run cabling.

A regular inspection regime is a sensible idea, as this will allow problems to be spotted and fixed at an early stage - rather than finding out about them in the worst circumstances, when a real blaze tests your school’s fire integrity. A third-party certified contractor will not only implement a maintenance plan and carry out any required remedial work, they will also be able to recertify the system once the job is complete, helping to ensure the site complies with regulations and insurance requirements.

As with choosing a third-party certified passive fire protection contractor for installation and refurbishment projects, using one for maintenance work is an investment that could help you to save money in the long-term with lower insurance premiums and reduced disruption in the event of a fire.