Keeping the blaze at bay

The tragic case of a fire in Manchester in which a firefighter died highlights once again the dangers associated with fire in the 21st Century. Within the educational community we need to be aware that blazes are still occurring in school premises at a rate of twenty schools per week.
Historically, blazes that occurred in schools during the main part of my fire service career took place out of hours, at weekends and during holiday time. A worrying trend is that nearly one third of all fires in schools occur during occupation. Some within the fire sector will recall the devastating effect of the fire in Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago on 1 December 1958 where 92 pupils and three nuns lost their lives when smoke, heat, fire, and toxic gases cut off their normal means of escape from the upper floors of the school building. 
That heart-rending incident has been used as a template in schools in the UK ever since, in order to manage fire safety in schools. To date there has never been a loss of life in a UK school as a direct result of a fire. Long may that remain so.

What head teachers can do
As legal duty holders under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety ) Order 2005, head teachers are held to account for the fire safety provisions within their establishment, which relate to staff, pupils, visitors, contractors and fire-fighters – should the need arise. The legal responsibilities are strict and can be onerous, depending on the age of pupils in the school. Governing bodies also have legal responsibilities under the same legislation.

Having attended many school fires, it is my experience that being proactive and having effective safety management systems pays dividends. The consequential losses of a school blaze extend way beyond the school perimeter and impact on staff, pupils, parents, and the local community. I have, on many an occasion, witnessed the effect a serious school fire has had on staff. It is similar to bereavement. The further loss of education and the impact on parents having to find additional leave to look after their offspring whilst school is closed cannot be underestimated.
The solution is instigated at the planning stage in the case of a new school, and involves all who are engaged in the built environment, starting with the designers, architects and planners. Others involved are school stakeholders, facilities management organisations, builders, sub‑contractors, building control, fire safety officers, insurance companies, companies that provide fire safety equipment of a passive or active nature, clients and ultimately, if it goes wrong, fire-fighters.

Fire suppression systems
The advent of effective fire suppression systems like sprinklers and mist systems, which are commonplace in the USA and South East Asia, is leaving us behind. Unfortunately in the UK, containment systems are routinely ‘lean engineered’ out of the specification in favour of an award winning facade or to meet an agenda of green credentials.
In my own local authority we have resolved the situation by working as part of a formal tripartite agreement with the fire service and the insurance company to ensure that all new builds and major refurbishments will have considered a fire suppression system. 

Making older buildings safe
Schools (local authorities, governing bodies and head teachers) have a moral, legal and financial duty to ensure that their premises are safe. Some schools are old, many built in the Victorian era, however this does not prevent retrofit during refurbishment. It is clear that there is a positive cost benefit analysis in building suppression systems in at construction stage.
My advice is not to be harangued into accepting a lower standard of fire safety. The aim of a suppression system is not life safety but to maintain the integrity of the building throughout its life.
We would not accept school premises that did not have passive fire protection, e.g. means of escape, acceptable travel distance, exit capacity, compartmentalisation, emergency lighting, signage and fire doors. And we rely totally on the active fire protection measures that support our safety management system, e.g. fire detection, fire alarm, fire fighting equipment and fire suppression systems.

Staff training
In order to close the circle, schools need to carry out a fire safety risk assessment (a legal requirement) and record any significant findings by an individual who is deemed competent to carry out a fire safety risk assessment. The local fire service will audit schools in order to ensure compliance – and serious breaches of fire safety legislation can invoke prosecution as a number of high street stores have found to their cost.
One major factor frequently overlooked is the training of staff which, again, is a legal requirement. By refresher‑training staff in fire safety awareness we are complying with our legal duty. Also, via our fire safety management strategy, we are communicating to staff that we care about their welfare.
Protecting school assets
In these prudent times, schools need to manage their building assets for the long term; this dovetails well with schools’ business continuity plan. A proactive school management team will have addressed many of the issues that I have highlighted and will receive the benefit long term. Those who have a laissez faire attitude to fire safety will pay the price. Each year 1300 schools suffer significant damage. There is a 1:20 probability of a fire occurring in your school.  Blazes that occur are either a deliberate act or an unfortunate circumstance.
Ask the caretaker if the hole in the compartment wall is a maintenance issue or a fire safety problem – you may be surprised by their answer. In many cases active fire protection is engineered out of the equation without the head teacher knowing.
At a recent seminar on fire safety in the Palace of Westminster, one primary head teacher gave a first hand graphic description of a blaze that occurred after lunch in her school as a result of a fault on a desk fan. Don’t let it happen to your school.
How big is the problem? Potentially great and mainly, but not exclusively, in the major conurbations. Every week 20 schools have an incident that requires fire service attendance. The local fire and rescue services are keen to support schools in risk reduction – so take advantage of this offer.

Complying with regulations
Historically, fires in schools have normally occurred out of hours. However, there is a worrying trend that indicates a significant rise in the number of non accidental fires occurring during occupation – the main problem areas being toilets, cloakrooms and cupboards. The time of day is important and most incidents occur during unstructured time, e.g. lunchtime – and the most interesting age profile is the 7-17 age group.
In order to comply with fire safety regulations, schools needs to ensure that all the requirements of the local fire authority are in place regarding passive and active fire safety. If planning refurbishment work ensure that it complies with building regulations and keep your insurance company advised, especially if the fire suppression system or the fire alarm are temporarily disabled.
Help can gained from a range of guidance documents applicable to schools, educational premises and small and medium places of assembly. It is a legal requirement to have a suitable and sufficient fire safety risk assessment in place which has recorded areas of vulnerability and any significant findings; this should be complimented with staff training.
To ensure that the risk of accidental fire is reduced, it is vital that schools have in place a five yearly test of electrical installations in order to identify possible electrical problems.
I trust that this article will be of value to those who have an interest in fire safety but also people in the education arena who may be confused by what to do.

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