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An Academic Exercise in Fire Safety

25 May 2021

THE UPHEAVAL in education due to the pandemic in the past year has only highlighted how damaging the closure of schools has been and the legacy of lost learning. Further unnecessary interruption to education should be avoided, not least when it comes to fire, writes Iain Cox.

With hundreds of schools in the UK having a fire each year, it’s clear that further action on fire prevention and safety is necessary. During the past year alone we’ve seen major fires in schools across the UK, all of them without sprinklers that could have minimised those incidents. This year’s National Sprinkler Week ran against a backdrop of fewer than one-in-six new schools having been built with a sprinkler system installed. It’s high time we changed that situation.

School fires have a devastating impact on both schools and their local communities. Three school fires in Derbyshire last year are a painful reminder of the damage, disruption and costs incurred when building constructed to educate the young are not fitted with sprinklers.

On the morning of Saturday 3 October, six fire engines and two aerial ladder platforms were called to attend a major blaze at St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy in Darley Abbey (pictured). The fire quickly engulfed the building, which was largely destroyed and reported as a ‘total loss’.

Just 48 hours later, in the early hours of Monday 5 October, there was a second severe fire only four miles away, this time at the Ravensdale Infant School in Mickleover which required 12 fire engines from the Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service to attend. While firefighters brought the fire under control, there was extensive damage to the building. Neither building had sprinklers fitted.

Studying from home

The children from the St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy were originally asked to study from home for three weeks before being displaced into two separate local schools. They’ve now been reunited in temporary accommodation within a refurbished office block over three floors. There’s no firm date in place for the replacement school. The children from the Ravensdale Infant School are being moved to temporary locations and may move again during the £8 million rebuild prject which is expected to be completed late on in 2022.

These two devastating fires occurred in the wake of a blaze in the same area four months earlier at the Harrington Junior School in Long Eaton. Thankfully, no children were on site and teachers and staff who were working in the building were able to evacuate safely. Despite the efforts of the Fire and Rescue Service, they were unable to save the building. Not only did the fire severely affect the children’s education when they returned to temporary classroom accommodation after lockdown, but the school will now have to be rebuilt.

Temporary classroom accommodation has cost £500,000 and is expected to be in place for two years during the rebuild. The cost of the rebuild was further reported to be £5.5 million and will require central funding.

Mandated in law

Currently, sprinklers are only mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and centrally funded schools in Wales. That’s not the case in England and Northern Ireland, yet observations on the incidence of fire relative to the population of school buildings indicate that the rate of fires in England is the same as in Scotland and Wales.

According to a 2019 study by Zurich Municipal, the insurer for half of the schools and universities in the UK, two-thirds of schools have ‘poor’ fire protection and are not properly prepared for a potentially damaging fire. The study also found that schools in England are ‘twice as likely’ to suffer fires than other school buildings.

Further, the insurer has stated that a change to Government legislation to make sprinklers mandatory will not only protect children in school, but also contain a fire to the room in which it starts when it begins out of school hours.

The Government is still considering the response to its call for evidence on Building Bulletin 100 which closed in May 2019. The Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA) has always highlighted that this document sets the right expectations around the protection of schools and the continuity of education. It sets an expectation that the school should be fully functional within 24 hours of a fire, apart from the room where the fire occurred.

The BSA wants the Government to explicitly maintain these objectives and enhance the ‘sprinkler expectation’ in the revised Building Bulletin 100 such that fewer schools are damaged and destroyed by fire. Better still, the Government should make property protection a consideration for the fire safety-focused Building Regulations in order to effectively protect all buildings of significant social and/or economic value from fire.

Optimal outcome

Ensuring the safety of a building’s occupants is considered the minimum under current regulations, but it’s clearly not the optimal outcome. A sprinkler system would serve to protect both the occupants and the building, allowing students to return to normality far more rapidly and with considerably less disruption to teachers’ already hectic schedules during this pandemic.

Fires in schools must be avoided. How many more fires need to occur before sprinkler installation becomes a mandatory prerequisite of school design and safety?

Iain Cox is Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

*For more information about the Business Sprinkler Alliance visit the www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org