Fire safety in schools is a complex issue

From educating pupils about the dangers of false alarms, to considering the flammability of paper display boards, fire safety in schools is more complex than you think. The Fire Industry Association shares what you need to know

The issue of fire safety within schools is a sensitive one; there are many factors to consider, especially in a place where parents place their trust in the school to safeguard their children from harm.  
A school that makes inadequate provisions towards their fire safety could suffer from routine disorganisation and disarray when practising a regular fire drill, or worse, actual fatalities in the event of a real fire.
Thankfully, government statistics for 2013-2014 show that schools have the lowest rate of non-fatal casualties in the UK, with only four in 1,000 fires creating casualties.  However, in a place where potentially hundreds of both staff and children are present, the case for minimising the risk is still strong.  
It is a sad fact that the Fire Industry Association (FIA) noted that in 2011/12 there were 700 fires in schools in the UK. The effects on schools can be devastating – loss of educational buildings, a drop in teacher and pupil morale, perhaps even disruption to those all-important exams and a real and actual loss to valuable teaching time.

The ‘responsible person’

Who is accountable for ensuring pupil safety, and maintaining a robust fire safety management strategy? The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 clearly outlines that all non-residential buildings, such as schools and hospitals have a ‘duty to take general fire precautions’ in order to minimise the risk of fire. A ‘responsible person’ has the duty to ensure the safety of employees and ‘all relevant persons who are not employees’, i.e. the children, any contractors or agency staff, or other general visitors onsite.
In the case of a school, the ‘responsible person’ could be someone within the local authority for state maintained schools, the person who has control of the premises (e.g. a caretaker or health and safety manager), the headteacher, or a nominated deputy. It would be their duty to ensure that all fire risk assessments are regularly reviewed (and up-to-date), that the maintenance of the fire safety equipment and alarm system is routinely carried out, and to schedule routine testing of all equipment pertaining to fire safety.

A paper produced by HM Government entitled ‘Fire Safety Risk Assessment – Educational premises’ highlights the need to identify high-risk individuals, and to ‘inform students of the relevant risks to them’, as well as provide them with ‘information about who are the nominated competent persons’ and the fire safety procedures.  Whilst many schools are highly efficient at ensuring their pupils understand what to do in the event of an alarm, they perhaps may not highlight to staff and children the cost of false alarms.

A false alarm

The Chief Fire Officer’s Association (CFOA), in combination with the FIA, highlighted the impact of unwanted fire signals. The publication, ‘Reduction of Unwanted False Alarms 2010’, states that unwanted fire signals divert ‘essential services from emergencies, putting life and property at risk’, are ‘a drain on public finances’, and are a ‘disruption to training of operational personnel’. In the period between December 2014 and March of 2015, Fire and Rescue Services in Glasgow attended premises with false alarms 1908 times – an outstanding average of 119 times per week. Figures for other cities across the UK are the same or even worse than this.

Additionally, on a more school-based level, there are further impacts for false alarms. The FIA spoke with a number of teachers to gain further insight into the consequences of false alarms.  Jason Pickett, a Year 6 teacher from Berkshire noted that false alarms ‘cause disruption to lessons’ and can also cause teachers to ‘lose preparation time’.  
When it comes to false alarms, it’s all a matter of education. If the bright young ones of the school discover that pressing a fire alarm button (technically known as a manual call point or MCP) equals ‘out of lessons excitement’ as Pickett put it, then there are two strategies you can try. First, educate everyone about the dangers of false alarms.  Second, install covers over the manual call point to avoid damage or deliberate activation in the case of a non-fire. A localised ‘squawk alarm’ can also be put in place as a second deterrent, so that when the cover is lifted, a sound is created specific to that call point. In that instance, teachers can react, preventing the fire alarm from being activated and give appropriate discipline to the child activating the alarm for the fun of getting out of class.
However, false alarms are not just a result of deliberate or malicious activation.

Faulty installations    

New research from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in conjunction with the FIA has shown that detectors can activate from faults if they are not correctly installed or maintained, or even from dust or steam.  At this precise moment in time, it is unclear as to whether the age of the detector is a factor in the creation of false alarms from malfunctions, but some European Union countries such as Austria and Germany recommend replacing smoke detectors every eight years.  Certainly a study by Kings College London reported that old detectors were responsible for 4.9 per cent of false alarms. Additionally, government statistics for 2013-14 reported that the alarm failed to operate altogether in 13 per cent of fires in the United Kingsdom (equating to an actual figure of 2600 fires nationwide), and this could also be a result of poorly maintained equipment.
Therefore it is the FIA’s recommendation that all equipment pertaining to fire safety be routinely checked for faults in order to safeguard everyone in the building. Certainly the CFOA has stated that ‘a fire alarm and fire detection system is unlikely to be reliable or effective if it has not been designed, installed, commissioned and maintained by trained and competent person(s). Many fire detection systems are complex and [the school] should ensure that the company they employ to carry out the design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of their fire alarm system can demonstrate competency.’ Ideally this should be through third party certification.  
Fortunately there is a simple way to check: look for the FIA symbol on the company’s literature and website. This is a recognised quality standard within the industry and ensures that the company’s training is up-to-date and they will have the requisite knowledge to service the fire safety equipment and advise as necessary, as all members of the FIA have third party certification.
However, it must also be stressed that the risk of fire can be minimised by the use of a robust risk assessment. In line with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, a risk assessment ‘must be reviewed by the responsible person so as to keep it up to date’ and particularly if ‘there is reason to suspect it is no longer valid’ or ‘there has been significant change in the matters to which it relates including when the premises, special, technical and organisational measures, or organisation of work undergo significant changes, extensions, or conversions’.

Essentially a risk assessment is a legal requirement and must be reviewed on a regular schedule, and additionally when changes around the school building occur – such as when new school buildings are erected, repaired, or converted – for example if classrooms are changed into IT suites or given any other purpose.
A robust fire risk assessment should identify fire hazards and help to minimise the fire risk. However, there are a number of things to remember around schools: fire doors must be kept closed, so remind children and staff not to prop them open.  If doors must be kept open, use a fire door retainer.  Dorgard is a device that keeps doors open, but closes the fire door on the sound of the alarm, helping to stop the spread of the fire.  As these are sound activated, they can be highly effective, but they will only close the door after the sound of the alarm has rung for 14 seconds or more, so there shouldn’t be a problem with the door closing when the school bell rings after each lesson or at breaktime. Again, these should ideally be supplied and fitted by a competent individual or company, so do check for third party certification where possible via the FIA symbol.

Minimising the risk

There are many other ways to minimise fire risk through passive fire protection, such as reconsidering the use of (highly flammable!) paper display boards in corridors; the use of multi-sensor detectors; fire-proof paint (layer upon layer of paint in the corridors of old school buildings can actually be extremely flammable – consider this carefully when redecorating the school); fire-proof fabrics and carpets; and ensuring that fire doors contain an intumescent smoke seal to prevent smoke escaping through the cracks around the door.
For more information about risk assessments, reducing the risk of fire, and how to reduce false fire alarms, visit the FIA website below.

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