Beat the fire starter

Living in northeast Hampshire, a recent item caught my attention on the local BBC News, namely that three schools in Farnborough had had arson attacks in less than a fortnight. The schools involved were Robert Tinsdale School, Belle View Primary and North Farnborough Infant School. The latter’s buildings suffered £30,000 of damage following the arson attack on one of its outhouses which was situated just metres from a gas tank.
Local Rushmoor Fire Station manager Ben Smith said: “These deliberate fires cause considerable disruption, cost huge amounts of money and put lives at risks.”

Much to loose
Not only are there the financial considerations from arson attacks on schools due to building loss, there is the possible loss of course work, teachers aids and records, as well as the psychological impact on pupils, particularly young children, and staff.  In addition, schools are often the focal point of the community as they host the meetings of the local senior citizens and provide a home for the mums and toddlers group. Indeed after a serious fire some schools may not be rebuilt and this was nearly the case after a previous arson attack in Farnborough at Pinewood Infant School. Hampshire County Council decided not to rebuild and only a determined fight by the local community which went all the way to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator overturned their decision.

The Farnborough arson attacks on schools are in no way isolated cases. Over 60 percent of school fires are started deliberately and each year in England and Wales more than 1,300 schools suffer fires large enough to be attended by the fire and rescue service with costs estimated at over £60million.

The odds of a school experiencing a fire also make uncomfortable reading – an estimated one in 20 – but that is certainly not the whole picture. Disruption and consequential loss becomes significant when a fire spreads beyond the room of origin. Returning to statistics, some 40-50 of fires in schools are termed serious fires, involving insured building losses in excess of £50,000, with some 20 of these involving losses of more than £250,000.

The rationale of the Building Regulations in the UK is that: ‘in an emergency the occupants of any part of a building should be able to escape safely without any external assistance.’ (Approved Document B to the Building Regulations). However, in many cases the designer of buildings/structures or the owner of an existing building may want to go further and increase the level of fire protection installed in the building so as to give the fire services more time to extinguish any fire that might occur. This could lead to a reduction in the amount of damage caused and thus, in the consequent insurance claim. This addition will provide extra comfort to insurers and also the fire-fighters, who may have to enter a fire-ravaged building after the occupants have escaped.

Third party certification scheme
Whilst it’s all very well specifying an increased level of fire protection for a building, it is equally necessary to ensure that the systems are properly installed and maintained. At the end of the relevant phase of construction, the fire protection installer will issue a Certificate of Conformity, which will claim that the product has been installed in accordance with the terms of the contract. But what does the Certificate of Conformity mean? Is it worth the paper it’s written upon? The Fire Industry Association (FIA) believes that its worth is greatly enhanced if it is issued under the auspices of a third party certification scheme. Such schemes mean that competent operatives have correctly installed the specified products and that independent inspectors have randomly inspected the work.

Third party certification schemes were implemented to improve the quality of the UK’s fire protection. Approved Document B of the Building Regulations states that: ‘Since the fire performance of a product, component or structure is dependent upon satisfactory site installation and maintenance, independent schemes of certification and registration of installers will provide confidence in the appropriate standard of workmanship being provided.’

The Document goes on to say: ‘Building Control Bodies may accept the certification of products, components, materials or structures under such schemes as evidence of compliance. Nonetheless a Building Control Body will wish to establish, in advance of the work that any such scheme is adequate for the purposes of the Building Regulations.’

It is the FIA’s opinion that designers and building owners should consider the use of more fire protection in buildings that are critical to the community, such as public buildings including schools, hospitals and community centres. The value to the country of keeping these buildings operational far outweighs the small additional cost of an extra level of fire protection.

It could also be argued that businesses and organisations should carry fire insurance on their buildings. Even very small companies are required to have Employers Liability Insurance, so why no requirement for even a basic level of fire insurance, especially when many businesses and organisations that experience a major fire cease to trade within a year of its occurrence?  Indeed, many buildings that are critical to the community, for example schools, carry no fire insurance at all.

Extra fire protection is not just a nice-to-have exercise; it could mean the difference between a school building surviving or not in the event of a fire. In most cases, the knock on effects for the community should a school not survive will be many fold the cost of replacing the building itself and the only people that might imaginably benefit from this are the serial truants, and I suspect that even they would get bored with no school eventually.

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