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Speaking for the Sector - May 2021

25 April 2021

As we begin to emerge from a particularly dark period in our nation’s history, Dennis Davis observes why there’s now a requirement to face a future which demands acceptance of the burden of the past and wherein much of the focus will rest upon youth

COVID-19 HAS been viewed as affecting our younger people far less, with their health deemed to be more robust if they’ve been infected. In their case, the threat is assigned more to concerns about them being potential transmitters of the Coronavirus.

In truth, COVID’s level of impact on our youth may turn out to be much greater than envisioned because, after all that has happened since March 2020, this is the generation that has experienced a disrupted education, may well have fewer work opportunities to chase going forward and suffers privately with less quantifiable health concerns, at least in part because of isolation.

Arguably, then, this is a generation that requires careful investment and, from a fire perspective, for which educational facilities are a key feature. It’s welcome news to learn of the Government’s pledge concerning a £1.56 billion, ten-year fund for school rebuilding and repairs. Although it’s perhaps here that another dilemma – and one long in the making – arises.

The dilemma is that this estimate suggests around 20% of the new investment money could be expended on fire repair costs. An estimate made credible because it’s based upon a detailed analysis of school fires.

School fires have long been a sad marker of the failure of this country’s fire safety strategy. Importantly, we’re talking about a failure both in terms of prevention (ie by not effectively challenging and solving the causes, albeit they’re often deeply buried in the roots of societal disenfranchisement) and protection, whereby the consequence of ineffective prevention remains regularly demonstrated by continuing school losses.

Protection is the core

Finding the right partners and contributing skills for stimulating preventative action isn’t always easy, being outside of our usual operational areas. However, protection is our core business. No surprise, then, that for many years now the Fire Sector Federation has expressed support for school security and the fire safety management of criminal or unintended ignitions and fires.

Long resisted in the UK, regular calls to mandate the fitting of automatic sprinkler systems in schools should not be perceived as a self-serving industry solution. Rather, it’s a common international fire strategy requirement used to secure what are hugely important public assets. At the very least, there should be serious consideration around the cost of fire and its impact when it comes to the loss of school facilities.

The recent revelation that school fires have destroyed over 1,000 classrooms in England in the last five years sends a stark and unwanted reminder of the need for a more effective fire safety management process being exhibited across all educational premises.

The 20% estimate mentioned earlier is courtesy of insurer Zurich Municipal and based upon 2,300 fires which destroyed 47 primary and secondary school buildings and seriously damaged 230 others. That’s according to an analysis of Home Office data from 44 fire authorities in England. It’s also estimated that the teaching hours lost next year from fires alone would disrupt the education of circa 28,000 children. Between 2015 and 2020, of those 2,300 schools suffering from fires, only 2% of them had sprinkler systems installed.

Whatever your perspective on the matter, it feels wrong to accept such a situation just as the first £1 billion phase of the Government’s programme for 50 school rebuilds and 21 new free schools is kick-started.

More inclusive strategy

Is it not logical to expect that the school rebuilding programme should include a better fire safety strategy, and maybe one more inclusive of sprinkler systems? It’s disappointing to learn of speculation that the delayed revised version of Building Bulletin 100: Design for Fire Safety in Schools will not make any mandatory recommendation to install sprinklers in new schools and may in fact ‘water down’ the existing recommendation that a fire risk assessment should be adopted as a precursor to determining if sprinklers should be fitted.

Both the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Brigades Union are among many in the fire sector who’ve been consistently calling for mandatory sprinkler systems in new and refurbished schools. Again, this is not a self-serving promotion. Their staff and members fight the prevention failures. It’s sensible advice drawn from years of practical experience.

Michael Harper, chair of the Fire Sector Federation, has stated: “There is potentially no better opportunity to strengthen fire safety guidance for school buildings than at the start of a ten-year programme of new build and refurbishment. The damage incurred in local communities by school fires goes beyond just the economic cost, potentially depriving children of learning and attainment opportunities. The evidence is overwhelming that, in almost all cases where sprinklers are deployed, they will extinguish a fire effectively.”

This opportunity to correct a misguided approach to protection must not be ignored. After all, we will all depend on our young generation to support our safety, security, health and prosperity in the future. How short-sighted, then, if we don’t invest in our youth – and the safe facilities they need – right now.

Dennis Davis is Executive Officer at the Fire Sector Federation (www.firesectorfederation.co.uk)