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The Secret Risk Assessor - September 2018

25 July 2018

While a school fire risk assessment could be considered a simple task, The Secret Risk Assessor points out that you need to consider the potential of a terror attack.

UNDERTAKING FIRE risk assessments in schools does, on the surface seem a relatively simple task, at least in terms of a life safety evacuation. Generally, there is a plentiful supply of final exits, often from every classroom. 

In addition, the travel distances are usually minimal in length and the frequency of fire drills combined with the staff to pupil ratio should ensure prompt evacuation times. Add to that the expected enthusiasm in which children will exit classrooms during lesson time and the risk to life from a fire in a school should be relatively low.

Granted there are considerable fire risks within the school environment, such as science labs, art rooms, CDT workshops or whatever they are called nowadays (showing my age there), however from a life safety perspective the expectation is that a speedy evacuation should be the norm.

That should be the end of this article, however we now need to factor in the sick and twisted individuals in the world who see school children as legitimate targets for terror related attacks, this issue may potentially need to be factored into the fire risk assessment, but rarely is. Now, granted not every school will fall under the high-risk category, but when they do some additional considerations need to be made.

The issue with a prompt evacuation to an external assembly point is that all the children and teachers of the school are in one place. This is perfect for fire evacuation and roll call purposes, but not so great if a sick individual is planning an attack which will affect as many people as possible.

Firstly, the requirement to minimise the ability of someone to falsely raise the alarm in order to get the children to the external assembly point needs to be considered. Anti-tamper devices on the manual call points will potentially deter children, especially if they are fitted with localised alarms to them. However, a determined sicko will not be concerned by the localised alarm. Therefore, it may be deemed appropriate for all manual call points to be key operated so that only staff can raise the alarm. Having seen this system in operation the fire risk assessor MUST ensure that all staff (including teachers, catering staff, maintenance staff etc) carry their keys with them at all times.

Once the alarm has been raised we need to consider where to safely assemble the children. Obviously, an external place of ultimate safety away from the building is the first choice, however unless we can be sure that the area is safe then we may need to suggest further control measures such as additional security (perimeter, access control or even manned guarding).

Assembly point

If the risk assessment dictates that there is no suitable external assembly point then an internal point may be deemed appropriate, in a similar manner to that of a refuge in a residential care home. A large hall capable of safely accommodating all building occupants with enough exits to open air may be deemed suitable, subject of course to a fire risk assessment. Alternatively, a system of progressive horizontal evacuation may be utilised.

However, both of these measures might require a significant improvement to the fire detection and alarm system in order for the systems to work and to ensure that children are not directed to the actual fire itself, for example by upgrading to an addressable system.

Additionally, especially for older buildings, additional compartmentation work will be required prior to agreeing any evacuation procedure that deviates from that of full simultaneous evacuation. In many instances schools were built with minimal or even no compartmentation at all and even if they were it is likely that breaches have been made due to the addition of service penetrations or internal changes of layouts. In this instance a full compartmentation survey may be required at the cost of many thousands of pounds.

It genuinely pains me to write this but as a fire risk assessor you may wish to also consider the potential of a terror style attack on any school you are undertaking the risk assessment for and if deemed appropriate offer recommendations to ensure that any fire evacuation will not create an easy target for the individual or people planning an atrocity.

The Secret Risk Assessor is a well-known risk assessor in the fire sector. They have asked for their name to be withheld so they can speak freely about common failing they see in buildings across the UK.