Is prevention better than cure?

What is the best way to ensure that your school is protected as well as it can be against fire? Adequate insurance protection is only part of the solution. Schools can take preventative steps to reduce the risk of fire breaking out, whether deliberate or not, by implementing a number of risk assessments and relevant improvements, rather than simply relying on insurance to foot the bill.

Consider for a moment the fallout from a school that suffers arson, which is still the biggest single cause of fires in schools, as the staff and pupils arrive in the morning and see the teaching block and all its contents completely destroyed by fire.

In this particular example, the building contained the library, main office, headteacher and deputies offices, staff room and 16 classrooms. The headteacher explains: “The first reaction is shock and numbness, followed by total disbelief and then realisation those 25 years of resources had gone. All the carefully collected photographs, booklets and artefacts from all over Europe had gone, all the paperwork for the administration of public examinations had gone, and all the school text books and personal belongings had gone.”

Bad timing
The timing of this particular fire – one of 20 suffered each week by UK schools – was particularly unfortunate, since Year 9 SATS were to be held later in the week and GCSE examinations were due to begin within a month. Heads of subjects had to contact examination boards to discuss what arrangements could be made for loss of coursework and pupils revision material.

The burnt out classrooms were replaced by mobile rooms and the school had a derelict building at its centre for over a year; this became a demolition site and then a building site. These circumstances are obviously not conducive to marketing the school and pupil recruitment, in particular the sixth form, suffered. This had a massive impact on the school budget. All in all, a complete disaster although at least the school was properly insured meaning that plans could commence for how to rebuild.

Fire prevention
A properly insured school will of course get back on its feet in due course but the process of demolition, planning and rebuild will take months and probably years to complete. So how can schools lessen their chances of suffering at the hands of an arsonist.

Many arson attacks are opportunist, although typically the school arsonist will be between 10 and 18 years of age and live in the local area. Fires are frequently started by a pupil, ex-pupil or someone with siblings at the school. A school and its staff can handle an individual with a grudge but dealing with the after effects of a serious fire is something entirely different.

Protecting against such an eventuality does not necessarily mean 24-hour security, expensive alarm systems or hour upon hour of risk assessment. Some simple housekeeping techniques will very often reduce the risk of a successful arson attack and although these are fairly well publicised it is well worth reiterating the principle areas to consider. This includes deterring unauthorised entry by the use of signs and fencing, reviewing lighting as nearly all arson attacks occur in darkness, and ensuring that locks on doors and windows are of the appropriate standard.

In addition, schools are urged to check that roof lights cannot be accessed from the outside, ensure that any intruder alarm systems are maintained and well publicised, and to remove all combustible material including wheelie.

Clearly the full list of preventative measures is more detailed but these easy low-cost tactics are not to be avoided.

Arranging insurance
Despite all efforts, fires do occur and it is at this point that the insurance cover arranged by the school will come into its own. Ensuring that the cover is appropriate is something that should be done before a loss occurs.

Insurance is often forgotten about until the inevitable fire or other loss but the adequacy and appropriateness of the cover should be checked at least once per year. An annual review with the school’s broker will provide the framework for this check. Buying insurance can be easy but if the cover isn’t right for the school then that cheap deal could turn out to be very expensive indeed.

One of the most important questions that will need answering as part of the insurance review is: what is the value of the sums at risk? Don’t forget that the sum insured for buildings needs to take into account all professional fees such as architects and surveyors as well as allowing for the cost of demolition and debris removal following a fire or other large loss. Establishing the correct sum insured is the foundation of good insurance and will mean that there will be no shortfall in the claims settlement by insurers.

In the fire at the school highlighted earlier, the correct sums insured has been established meaning that, despite the obvious work required in preparing the claim, the school knew that it would not have to make a contribution due to the settlement due to any underinsurance.

If the sums insured do not reflect the sums at risk then the insured might only be able to recoup a proportion of the claim amount. Setting the sums insured is something that brokers and insurers will be able to help with although the final responsibility for the sums insured remains with the insured.

Once the correct sum insured is established, the risks to be insured need to be decided. Most insurers will offer ‘all risk’ cover to buildings with perhaps the peril of subsidence being an optional extra.

Insurers will charge a premium that is commensurate with the risk and thus a school located in a known flood area can expect to pay more for this part of the portfolio. In addition, insurers will look at the protections that are in place and charge accordingly.

Schools can make substantial reductions to their premiums by installing a range of protections such as fire alarms, intruder alarms, security lighting, locks and grills, CCTV and the like. The most substantial discounts apply when sprinklers are fitted although this is not always practical to do in older school properties. Newly built schools will probably have this feature but it remains that still fewer than 1,000 of the 32,000 schools in the UK have sprinklers.

Setting the sums insured for contents is a little trickier and unless the school has an asset register with each and every item included, then a certain amount of estimating will be needed. Again, the broker and/or insurer should be able to help with this.

Most insurers will provide new for old cover meaning that the sums insured need to be calculated on the basis of contents being replaced as new regardless for their age and condition right now. Any items that have an antique or art value should be listed separately and specialist advice might be needed when it comes to establishing these values.

Additional expenses that are incurred following a fire also need to be insured. This is generally known as consequential loss or business interruption insurance. An example of this cover is the hire of portacabins for a period of time after the fire and during the rebuilding period. Loss of letting income should also be taken into account.

Suffering a fire loss is always going to cause problems and distress but if loss prevention techniques and a sound insurance portfolio form an integral part of the school’s risk assessment procedures then this distress can be minimised.