Finding the correct tools for fighting fire

The potential for serious fires to occur in schools and other educational establishments has been highlighted over a number of years by fire professionals. This has also been illustrated graphically in numerous incidents across the United Kingdom where schools buildings have suffered disastrous damage caused by fire.

We have been very fortunate that despite the number and severity of some of fires, there have been few casualties and no recorded fatalities in school fires the UK. This has not been the case in other parts of the world and while we have an unenviable record, there is no room for complacency.

There are likely to be many contributory factors as to why school buildings are susceptible to fire, ranging from the level of fire safety provision and management of fire safety issues to the construction techniques employed within the building and their vulnerability to malicious attack.

Fires are regularly occurring during school hours, when they are likely to be occupied. The supposition that such fires were in predominately out of hours periods no longer holds true. Significantly this has far reaching implications for the safety of those who use school buildings.

New lamps for old
During the last Westminster administration, one of the primary ways in which the raising of educational standards were to be achieved was the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The aim, to replace every secondary school with a modern, purpose built premise has, in my opinion, delivered many first class establishments where pupils have been encouraged in their education through the provision of great environments in which to learn. In addition to this there has been the replacement of many aging primary schools with modern facilities.

In 2007, the government issued Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) entitled ‘The design for fire safety in schools’. Aimed to complement the BSF programme, BB 100, which is still current, is a design guide that shows clearly how the requirements for fire safety can be met in the design of a new school or an extension. This guide explains what design teams should do to introduce innovative design, employing fire safety engineering and a risk-based approach. It also covers the principles of fire safety management and describes the fire protection measures that the designer should consider.

What makes this different from previous fire safety guides, which were primarily concerned with adequate provision for means of escape in the event of fire, is that it stresses the additional importance of protecting the fabric of schools, effectively making them a sustainable asset for years to come.

While the number of school fires has decreased over recent years, the costs associated with school fires have escalated, while the effects of loss of facilities, equipment, coursework, disruption of classes and lowering of morale also have a significant impact.

Fire suppression?
In a bold and innovative approach, BB100 also includes extensive guidance on the use of fire sprinklers and their importance as a weapon against fire. Their use was even endorsed by the then Fire Minister, Jim Knight.

To complement BB100, a sprinkler design guide, risk assessment and cost benefit analysis tool were also issued. The aim of these was to supply any potential provider of new schools with a comprehensive tool kit in order to maximise the benefits of fitting sprinklers into new build and major refurbishments.

Just how these tools were and are still utilised is hard to gauge. In my own experience there was a reticence in some quarters to fit sprinklers in schools, due to a variety of, and sometimes spurious, issues. The upshot was often a patchy compliance with BB100’s guidelines on the use of sprinklers, often depending on a poor understanding of sprinkler systems by an architect, major contractor or project ‘sponsor’. All too often, omitting a sprinkler system is seen as a cost saving but figures from some new builds suggest that a suitable system can be installed for about 0.5 per cent of the total build cost.

More worryingly, a recent survey carried out by London Fire Brigade indicated that six out of ten schools that have proposed building work in the last three years were not going to install sprinklers. Clearly not within the spirit of BB100 and one wonders how widespread this type of short-sighted thinking is?

To their credit, many new school providers did have sprinklers installed and we have seen instances where this 150 year old technology has been incorporated and has activated in fire situations, preventing a disastrous outcome.

From a survey carried out in 2010, The Chief Fire Officer Association were informed of at least 150 schools in England now fitted with sprinkler systems. The picture in Scotland and Wales is likely to further enhance these figures.

One of the challenges will be to continue to encourage the fitting of sprinklers systems in schools in the future.

Silk purse or sows ear
One of the very first steps the current administration took when gaining power in 2010 was to cancel the BSF programme and replace it with the Academies programme. Notwithstanding the politics and economics of this decision, it is likely to have a marked effect on the finance available to schools. One of the outcomes is likely to be a rationalisation of what is affordable for fire safety measures within schools, especially any that are likely to undergo building or refurbishment.

One clear effect of the change in direction has been that many decrepit and decaying school buildings that are well past their “sell by” date are likely to remain in service for the foreseeable future. Many of these buildings were built in my youth and have not effectively stood the test of time.

From a fire safety point of view, many schools that were due for renewal, whose buildings are of the ‘CLASP’ type or similar, are likely to have inherent problems associated with lack of fire stopping or poor fire separation between compartments and voids through which fire can rapidly and unknowingly spread, all of which have in the past led to rapid and sudden collapse of structure in a fire. With the continued use of these aging buildings, it is my concern that such matters will only be exacerbated as the decay process continues.

Management is the key
At times in the past, the enforcement of fire safety in schools could perhaps be described as taking a “light touch” approach. Since the introduction of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, some Enforcing Authorities have taken prosecutions against responsible persons with regard to failings of fire safety measures in schools but it would appear that lessons are being learned with, for instance, the number of fire risk assessments increasing all the time.

Having a current fire risk assessment (FRA), important as it is to comply with the law, only serves to provide a tool for managing fire safety within schools or indeed any premises.

Fire safety, in my experience, is not a dark art and anyone with a modicum of common sense should be able to identify hazards and put in place appropriate measures to reduce risk from fire. What it does take is a realistic understanding of what fire is and does, an understanding of what risk reduction measures are in place and importantly why they are there, a commitment to continually assess where and when hazards are likely to occur, and a willingness to take action when necessary.

In essence it is taking responsibility for managing fire risk to as low a level as possible. Though there are clearly identified responsible persons in respect of the legislation, all building users have a moral duty to practise a fire safe approach. To this end I cannot over-emphasise the essential nature of good fire safety training.

Looking ahead

I think it is clear that schools will continue to suffer fires, whether accidental or deliberate. The challenge is to ensure that both the current and future building stock is suitably protected so that school fire losses are reduced.

My simple rules for ensuring fire safety within any premise are:
• Prevent – don’t have a fire
• Detect and alert – warning in the event of a fire
• Protect – ensure people can use escape routes
• Suppress – get an extinguishing agent on the fire quickly.

These principles are straightforward and reasonably well understood but often systems breakdown and weaknesses occur when a human element is introduced.

Apart from those projects from the BSF programme that survived the economic downturn, it is as yet relatively unclear how the academies programme will provide new buildings in future. There will, quite possibly, be a greater role for private enterprise. One fear is that financial considerations will take precedence over sound fire safety thinking, particularly around the application of new building materials and techniques, the use of fire engineering theory and the omission of a suitable fire suppression system in new build schools.

The Chief Fire Officers Association fully endorses the view that new build and major school refurbishments should have fire suppression factored in from the very inception of the project in order to maximise the financial and practical benefits of fitting them and would encourage the maintenance of high fire safety standards within schools and other educational premises.

For more information
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