In the UK, schools are twice as likely to have a fire emergency than other non-domestic buildings. This is particularly concerning given how vulnerable some of the people within schools are, such as...Continue Reading
In the UK, schools are twice as likely to have a fire emergency than other non-domestic buildings. This is particularly concerning given how vulnerable some of the people within schools are, such as very young children or those with physical or learning difficulties. For this reason, schools must have a rigorous fire protection strategy in place. In this article, we will be summarising the main fire risks in schools, before providing step-by-step instructions on how to carry out a fire risk assessment in a school.
Understanding what causes fires in schools
In 2019, it was reported that 271 primary schools and 209 secondary schools were damaged by fire – a total of 40 schools per month. This caused damage to over 15,000 square metres of school property and disrupted the educational progress of around 20,000 children. For larger facilities, the cost of a fire averaged £2.8 million, with some schools spending nearly £20 million on repair costs. These fires could be categorised as having one of three primary causes:
- Intentional setting of fires – One of the most startling figures is the high rate of arson in schools, which accounts for approximately 60% of school fires. These fires tend to be committed by past and present students and often occur when schools are very quiet in the holidays or after hours.
- Accidental fires – These have various specific causes, such as smoking, accidental mixing or spilling of chemicals, playing with lighters or matches, and the unsupervised use of heating equipment.
- Damage or neglect to electrical systems – Fires also occur as a result of poorly maintained electrical systems, more specifically faulty wiring, worn connections to appliances, overloaded connections, and a lack of PAT-testing (portable appliance testing).
Which areas within schools are most at risk of fire?
These are the areas of a school that are most likely to provide a source of ignition, fuel, or oxygen. They carry inevitably higher risks and therefore must be a focus for any fire risk assessment and protection system:
- Kitchens – Schools that cook and serve hot lunches carry a higher fire safety risk, much like any other commercial kitchen. These risks are increased in the presence of hot oils and grease, overloaded electrical circuits and poorly maintained appliances.
- Chemistry labs – By storing and using flammable and often explosive chemicals and gases (as well as Bunsen burners), school chemistry labs need special attention and fire safety protocols to reduce the risk posed by combustible substances and heat sources.
- Workshops – Design and technology spaces (such as those used for woodwork or metalwork classes) usually contain flammable materials and heat sources. Primary examples include equipment that can overheat or spark, like sanding machines, metalworking machines, printers, and lasers.
- IT labs – Computers, servers, routers, printers, and paper stores in IT labs could act as both sources of heat and as accelerants. These spaces run a higher risk of electrical overload than other areas of a school and require regular maintenance to mitigate various fire risks.
Legislation concerning school fire safety in the UK
Fire safety regulations in schools fall under the purview of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order of 2005, which provides two main points that schools must follow:
Appointing those responsible
Each school should have multiple people who are responsible for organising and orchestrating any fire safety initiatives. This position can be held by the Facilities Manager or any senior staff member. To learn more about what this may entail, we recommend our article ‘Who is responsible for enforcing fire safety legislation?’
Completing tasks as a ‘Responsible Person’
Those who hold this role are responsible by law for certain ongoing fire safety tasks and responsibilities. This includes the delivery of a fire risk assessment and communicating those risks to the staff of the school. They are also in charge of implementing and maintaining all safety measures (including fire alarms and extinguishers), staff training and developing emergency response plans in the event of a fire.
It’s important to note that schools are legally required to follow these processes, and failure to do so can result in fines and even prison sentences of up to 2 years.
Carrying out fire risk assessments in schools
Below is a step-by-step process to guide you through your responsibilities, in line with fire protection legislation and best practices for protecting lives and property.
Identify fire hazards
A fire survey starts with a comprehensive walkthrough of the entire premises. Here, an expert can help you to identify risks in kitchens, laboratories, and workshops as well as areas where flammable materials and other potential fuel sources are present.
Identify persons at risk
Specialist guidance can help you list everyone who is at risk if a fire occurs. This includes all staff members, students, visitors, and contractors on the premises. Special attention must be given to those who are especially at risk, including young children or staff and pupils with disabilities. It’s also important to include after-hours staff like cleaners, contractors, and security staff who may be on the premises outside of school hours and during holidays.
Reduce fire risks
Every school is different, and specialists are an invaluable resource for delivering a fire protection plan that’s tailored to your unique needs. Generally speaking, your fire prevention and suppression systems should include the following:
- Compartmentation in shared areas of the building such as stairwells, staircases, and entrance halls to limit the spread of flames and smoke. It’s important to note that compartmentation measures must be installed and inspected by a team of passive fire protection specialists.
- The installation of fire doors and fire suppression systems (sprinklers and fire extinguishers) where needed. Fire doors in schools should be rated FD60 and above based on the presence of high-risk materials or items of value. Hinges and frames for these doors should be both Certifire approved and, if required, CE marked. Having experts on board with your project will ensure that any fire suppression systems are installed in adherence to industry standards.
Ensuring that fire prevention standards are met for high-risk areas. This will include drafting up fire safety policies and ensuring both staff and students alike are fully informed of fire safety rules and procedures.
Record all measures taken and create fire safety and emergency protocols
The full fire risk assessment should be recorded and saved securely on your system, as well as made easily available to relevant staff members and authorities.
In addition, the responsible person needs to create and implement policies that reduce risks and guarantee the safety of both people and property in the event of a fire:
- Making your school a smoking-free zone or limiting smoking to a designated area
- Ensuring fire doors are kept shut at all times
- Having electrical equipment PAT-tested regularly
- Creating procedures for storing and using flammable materials
- Developing fire safety policies for using high-risk areas
- Regularly disposing of potentially flammable waste
- Creating a fire evacuation plan and signage
- Keeping escape routes clear and accessible
- Securing windows and doors after hours, or using an intrusion alarm if needed
- Regularly training staff and students on how to respond to a fire emergency
- Evaluate, test, and improve your fire protection protocols
- At a minimum, a new fire risk assessment should be performed each year. It’s also recommended to carry out a fire risk assessment if the school has had significant renovations or extensions, or in the aftermath of a fire.
CLM Fireproofing are the UK’s leading experts in passive fire protection for residential and commercial buildings and have a proven record in the education sector. Our qualified team provides market-leading passive fire protection solutions and fire risk surveys to minimise fire risks and ensure that schools are fully compliant with the latest fire safety standards. To speak to one of our passive fire protection specialists, contact CLM Fireproofing today.