Staying fire‑safe with school sprinklers

Staying fire‑safe with school sprinklers

While there is around a one in 20 chance of a fire breaking out in a school, the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire has fuelled the debate about whether sprinklers should be mandatory in English schools

The fire at Grenfell Tower has raised the question as to whether all new and refurbished schools should be fitted with sprinkler systems, as they are in Scotland and Wales, to ensure that pupils are safe if a fire were to break out. 

Last year, a fire broke out in a school in Clarkston, Scotland, and was put out by the school’s sprinkler system, confirming the effectiveness of sprinkler systems.

According to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), UK fire statistics in England show that in 2016 to 2017, there were 686 fires in schools, with the most expensive school fires typically costing around £2.8 million.

Despite the financial issues that fires in schools cause, it also disrupts the education of around 90,000 pupils annually.

Statistically there is a one in 20 chance of a school having a fire, but that does not explain the whole picture. Many fires 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’s ‘Sprinklers in schools’ report states that whilst government’s expectation was that most, if not all new schools would be fitted with sprinklers, recent estimations show that the rate has fallen from around 70 per cent of new schools being built with sprinklers in 2008, down to 30 per cent as of December 2016. However, school sprinklers are currently mandatory in new schools in Scotland and Wales.

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. 

NFCC and the National Fire Sprinkler Network (NFSN) have worked together to investigate the effectiveness and reliability of sprinkler systems.

This work showed that sprinkler systems operate on 94 per cent of occasions, demonstrating very high reliability. The report also showed when sprinklers do operate, they extinguish or contain the fire on 99 per cent of occasions, meaning they are very effective.

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. 

For example, a fire broke out in a school in Clarkston, Scotland, a country that has been required to install sprinkler systems in new school builds since 2016. The small fire started in a non-teaching area of Williamwood High School, but was put out by the school’s sprinkler system.

When the Scottish Fire and Rescue service arrived, it was discovered that the sprinklers extinguished the fire, ensuring that nobody was injured and students were back in class in under an hour.

Since the Grenfell incident, the fire brigades Union (FBU), National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) urged former 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.’

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.” 

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