Following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire back in June, there has been questions raised over how fire-safe buildings are and whether sprinklers should be fitted in all schools
The fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017 brought into sharp focus wider questions about fire safety and has caused widespread concern throughout the education sector about how many school buildings have cladding which is not fire resistant.
It has also raised the question as to whether all new and refurbished schools should be fitted with sprinkler systems to ensure that pupils are safe if a fire was to break out.
Since the incident, the Fire brigades Union (FBU), National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) urged education secretary Justine Greening to ditch proposals they believe will make fire safety rules less effective – especially in regard to the installation of sprinklers in schools.
The unions also demanded clarity over the use of“combustible materials” for cladding on school buildings, after reports schools could be fitted with the same cladding blamed for the blaze.
What’s more, the NUT and FBU have been pressing the government since last year to reverse its proposed changes to fire safety requirements for school buildings which “show a total disregard for the health and safety of children and staff”.
The NUT went on to say that last summer, the government announced that the expectation that sprinklers should be fitted in new schools in England would be removed from its Building Bulletin guidance.
Although the government responded to NUT and FBU protests by claiming that it was still consulting, its proposed replacement Building Bulletin set out the government’s intention: ‘The Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety and therefore [guidelines] no longer include an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.’
CALL FOR SCHOOL SPRINKLERS
Since the Grenfell fire, the National Fire Chiefs Council has called for all new school builds or refurbishments to have sprinklers fitted – a policy that is mandatory in Scotland and Wales.
Figures show the proportion of new schools built with sprinklers had dropped from about 70 per cent a decade ago to a third last year – and overall, in England and Wales, just five per cent of schools have sprinklers.
The NFCC part commissioned an independent analysis in 2017 which looked at more than 2,000 incidents attended by UK fire services in sprinkler-protected buildings, which found that sprinkler systems correctly operated on at least 94 per cent of the fires and controlled or extinguished 99 per cent of those fires.
According to NFCC, the impact of school fires is significant; while they have an impact in financial terms they also have a devastating impact on the communities schools serve, along with the environment and the disruption to students, teachers and families.
The NFCC also states that the impact on children’s education is not just based on lost course work, but often includes longer travelling times, disrupted social groups and poorer facilities.
In addition, the NFCC believes if sprinklers were considered at the design stage of new build or refurbishment of existing buildings, costs could be kept to a minimum.
According to figures by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), the average cost of school fires between 2000 and 2004 was £58 million per year.
Statistically there is a one in 20 chance of a school having a fire, but they are not reported to fire and rescue services, particularly if they self-extinguished or are put out by staff.
By engaging with designers and architects, NFCC believes schools could be designed to inspire learning, address the broadening requirements being placed upon them as community resources and incorporate this essential fire safety system as standard.
The NFCC has a strong view that sprinklers can play a significant role in both improving the life safety of occupants. In addition, it believes that sprinklers are the most effective way to ensure that fires are suppressed – or even extinguished – before the fire service can arrive.
Not only this, the NFCC states that sprinklers are an effective part of an overall fire safety solution and can be used efficiently to improve fire safety in a range of new and existing school buildings and supports the concept of risk-assessed retro fitting of sprinklers.
The Grenfell Fire is not the only incident which has raised concerns over the lack of sprinklers fitted in educational establishments. After a fire broke out at St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy in Bedlington, Northumberland, MP Ian Lavery has called on the government to put in place sprinklers in all newly refurbished schools after four classrooms were damaged in the suspected arson attack.
As reported by the Chronicle Live, the Wansbeck MP wrote to Amber Rudd MP, education secretary Justine Greening MP and Alok Sharma MP demanding sprinklers are installed in all schools.
In the letter, Lavery said: “Many local people have been in touch regarding the provision of sprinkler systems, appalled that their presence is not mandatory either in new build or existing schools.
“Sprinklers are an essential safety feature in the control of fire. Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the importance of sprinklers in public spaces, as well as residential properties, has been highlighted to the government on numerous occasions.”
He added that the incident “brings home the importance of ensuring that our children are safe whilst being taught, but also the importance of ensuring disruption to their education is minimised wherever possible.”
Lavery concluded the letter by calling on the education, housing and Home Office to look at this issue as a priority and ensure that schools and public spaces are made safe, through the introduction of mandatory sprinkler systems.