Fire risk assessments in schools: could we be sleepwalking into a disaster?

Government statistics show a steady downward trend in fires in schools from approximately 1,300 incidents in 2000-2001 to 700 in 2011-2012. However, we shouldn’t become complacent – arson in schools still accounts for nearly 180 fires every year. The Fire Industry Association’s technical manager Philip Martin explains the fire risks facing modern schools and what can be done to keep these locations safe.

Schools are changing places. They’re facing budget cuts and increasing demands to accept students of all abilities. For their part, secondary schools are being pressured into concentrating more on vocational studies, which could suggest an increase in laboratory and workshop activities.

Budget cuts could result in a reduced investment in fire safety measures, just as there’s an increase in the number of vulnerable people and hazards. It’s a potentially dangerous combination.

We need to bear in mind that fire safety legislation, which requires a fire risk assessment to be carried out in all schools throughout the UK, is focused on life safety. However, the biggest concern for many school governors may be the risk of arson. The life safety fire risk assessment isn’t concerned with property protection, but any measure taken to preserve life will tend to protect property.

The Fire Risk Assessment

The first question you should consider when carrying out a fire risk assessment is: ‘How can a fire start?’ The answer naturally falls into one of two groups: accidentally or deliberately. Not all hazards can be eliminated but they can all be managed. The Government’s guidance on educational premises covers this quite thoroughly.

When considering measures to prevent arson it helps to use your imagination. Stand outside the premises when it’s locked and empty and ask yourself how you would start a fire. Remember, most arsonists come prepared with nothing more than a lighter. That bin full of paper or pile of timber against the wall will start to look very appealing.

The life safety fire risk assessment isn’t concerned with property protection but any measure taken to preserve life will tend to protect property

The life safety fire risk assessment isn’t concerned with property protection but any measure taken to preserve life will tend to protect property

We need to think about physical security and removing or securing combustibles away from the school buildings, particularly away from overhanging eaves. We then need to think about intruder alarms and CCTV, both as deterrents and response mechanisms. Finally, we need to consider fire detection and sprinklers. BB100 offers some very sound advice on these matters.

As the fire risk assessor, you will need to look at the physical fire safety measures, the hardware and the management of fire safety, the software. Oddly, the hardware is probably the easier to assess as you can see and touch it. The software can be a puzzle.

You may have detailed procedures and comprehensive records but you need to be confident that they will work if put into practice. It could be useful to ask members of staff specific questions about what they’re supposed to do and what they would actually do. Ask them direct questions about what they know in relation to fire safety and who is responsible for what on site.

Taking responsibility: who’s in control?

This raises another question: ‘Who’s in control?’ Getting everyone in academic institutions to work together can be difficult. However, to make the premises safe someone has to take control, both generally and in an emergency. Legally, the organisation has to appoint an individual or individuals to be responsible for all aspects of fire safety. If more than one person is given responsibility, they should be co-ordinated and share information between them. Everyone in the organisation must be clear about their part in maintaining fire safety.

It may seem obvious that fire protection equipment such as fire alarms, extinguishers and emergency lighting should be serviced on a regular basis. Also needing a system of inspection and maintenance are elements such as fire-resisting walls, floors (ceilings) and doors, along with fire exits, extract systems (such as cooker hoods), ducts (especially fire dampers in ducts), fire safety signs and notices, fixed electrical systems and portable appliances (to name but a few).

Much of this maintenance isn’t costly or time-consuming. A simple walk around can be sufficient for inspecting and maintaining systems, and could be combined with a check on security systems and general housekeeping. There are two key points to note. Maintenance has to be planned and it has to be recorded. A simple logbook can help. The FIA has developed a new logbook which is available from FIA member companies.

Philip Martin: technical manager at the FIA

Philip Martin: technical manager at the FIA

The management of fire safety also needs periodic review looking at various aspects such as who is responsible for the management system, staff training, procedures (and not just the emergency procedures), records of maintenance supplier contracts and, of course, the fire risk assessment itself.

Fire drills will prove that the evacuation strategy works. Government guidance recommends that such a drill is carried out at least once a year and, preferably, every term. To be effective the drill needs to be planned, people informed and the drill monitored to avoid unnecessary risks (such as accidents on stairs).

The results of a drill can give valuable information on planning, training and the effectiveness of the facilities like alarms and escape routes.

Occasionally, a full evacuation isn’t desirable for safety reasons. In this instance, some form of simulation or desk top exercise may be sufficient – but only in exceptional circumstances.

Safe escape for everyone?

Naturally, schools should be open to students of all abilities. The premises should be adapted to ensure students can get into the premises and access all its amenities.

However, everyone must be able to get out in an emergency. We need to consider people with mobility and sensory impairment as well as those with intellectual and emotional impairment and how they may respond in an emergency. Think about both the hardware and the software when you ask yourself these questions…

*Can we use lifts in an emergency?
*Do we have procedures in place?
*Do we have properly trained and equipped staff?
*Can individuals with special needs be accommodated within the general evacuation procedure or will they require a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP)?

Guided by Government, the Fire Risk Assessors Competency Council (a stakeholder group supported by the fire safety industry) drafted a set of competency criteria and signposted ways of assessing the competency of fire risk assessment organisations

Guided by Government, the Fire Risk Assessors Competency Council (a stakeholder group supported by the fire safety industry) drafted a set of competency criteria and signposted ways of assessing the competency of fire risk assessment organisations

In the past, schools used to employ simple fire alarm systems comprising a few call points and bells. False alarms were rare and the consequences minor. Now, most buildings will have an alarm system with automatic fire detectors, mostly smoke detectors that will often be monitored by operators at an Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC). Smoke detectors respond equally to the smoke from fires as well as dust, steam and smoke from burning toast in the staff room, for example, which has led to more false alarms.

The FIA has a website dedicated to false alarms. Visit: http://www.fia.uk.com/en/cut-false-alarm-costs for more information.

Understanding your Fire Service

Over the last few years, the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) across England and Wales has been under severe pressure to reduce costs. Stations are being closed and the number of fire fighters reduced. Automatic calls to the FRS are frequently ‘challenged’ and, depending on where you are, an automatic signal relayed to the FRS via an ARC would be classed as ‘unconfirmed’. This may result in fewer fire fighters attending on an initial basis, with the crew arriving at normal road speed (no sirens or flashing lights) – or, in some cases, not at all.

It’s important that you find out about your local FRS’ policy. Also, give the ARC instructions to call key holders as well as the FRS. When the premises are occupied, someone should make a 999 call rather than relying on the ARC in the event of a real fire.

Most people assume the fire brigade will rescue everyone and save the building. This needs to be examined a little more closely. Legally, and morally, if we are responsible for premises and the people on/in them, that responsibility includes being able to get everyone to safety in an emergency. If fire fighters have to rescue people it indicates we have failed.

We should not have to rely on the brigade to evacuate people, and that includes those with special needs. Moreover, they – ie the brigade – will not risk fire fighters’ lives trying to save your property. This means that once a fire becomes established in a building the brigade will tend to attack the fire from outside. Sadly, this often results in the total loss of the building.

Listen to the experts

Many hold the view that, in all but the simplest of premises, a lay person – even supported by the Government guides – wouldn’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out a thorough fire risk assessment. Many Boards of Governors and local authorities are so concerned about this that they only use consultants to do the work. Whether they use a staff member or employ a consultant, how do they know the assessor is competent?

Guided by Government, the Fire Risk Assessors Competency Council – a stakeholder group supported by the fire safety industry – drafted a set of competency criteria and signposted ways of assessing the competency of fire risk assessment organisations. These two documents are available on the FIA’s website at: http://www.fia.uk.com

The FIA maintains a strong position, advocating that anyone carrying out work of a specialised nature should work for an organisation which is third party accredited to a UKAS-accredited scheme such as BAFE SP205.

Could we be sleepwalking into a disaster? The answer very much depends on you. We haven’t had a fatality in a day school in many years. Let’s keep it that way.

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