The number of school fires has been in decline since 2001 and has dropped from around 1600 per year to 600. Nevertheless, the impact of a large school fire is devastating for staff, students and parents alike – dealing with the immediate aftermath and the longer term issues of lost work, possible relocation of the school with parents having extended journeys to drop off their children, closures, loss of jobs, the effect on local businesses – the list is long before even mentioning the potential for injuries.
Arson is a major concern with approximately 100 school fires a year being attributed to arson attacks. However, once again, this is in decline.
Before 2006, schools were rarely considered in fire safety legislation, as many were maintained by the local authorities and expected to be of good fire safety standard anyway. This changed with the introduction of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – also called the 'Fire Safety Order' or, in short, the 'RRO', the 'FSO' or even just the 'Order'. The RRO applies to all workplaces and covers general fire precautions which are needed to protect 'relevant persons' in case of fire in and around the 'premises'. The Order requires fire precautions to be put in place 'where necessary' and to the extent that it is reasonable and practicable in the circumstances of the case. The Order applies in England and Wales with similar regulations in Scotland and Ireland.
The RRO introduced the concept of the 'Responsible Person' into the fire safety domain. The Responsible Person (RP) is the person ultimately responsible for fire safety. For a workplace it is generally the employer but may be any other 'person having control' of part of the premises. In schools this may be either the Headteacher or the Governing Body. Confusingly, there may be other 'responsible persons' – where a person has a contract that involves a fire safety obligation at the premises, such as a premises manager, maintenance engineer or fire risk assessor. That person may be treated as a 'responsible person' as far as their obligation extends and failure to carry out their responsibilities may see these persons prosecuted.
The Responsible Person has a duty under the Order to take defined 'general fire precautions' to ensure the safety of employees and to ensure that the premises are safe for 'relevant persons'. One of these precautions is to ensure that a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) has been carried out that focuses on the safety of these 'relevant persons' in case of fire, by identifying risks that can be removed or reduced and any other general fire precautions that need to be taken to protect 'relevant persons'. Where five or more persons are employed the significant findings of the FRA need to be recorded. To assist the responsible person in carrying out the FRA and providing the basic fire safety measures the government (England and Wales) has produced a guide entitled Fire Safety Risk Assessment - Educational Premises.
Given the requirements of the order and the findings of the FRA what are the basic fire precautions that must be taken into account? It is useful to divide these up into three categories:
Passive fire precautions involve the delaying of fire and smoke spreading through a building with floors, walls and doors; these also protect the structure from early collapse. Passive protection is inherent in every building to some extent and is the bedrock of fire safety; whether walls and doors are 'fire rated' or not, they will delay the spread of harmful products of combustion. Fire rated (usually 30, 60 or 90 minutes) construction provides for a higher degree of protection but the integrity of these barriers must be maintained – fire doors fill the necessary holes in these walls, which is why they need to be kept closed!
Active fire precautions include fire detection and fire suppression. The best fire detector is, of course, a human who can see and smell smoke, feel heat and hear the noise of a fire so the greatest active system would be a fully trained firefighter in every room equipped with a full quota of fire extinguishing equipment – but this would prove a little expensive for the average school! The range of alternatives is extensive with early warning systems such as smoke detection and automatic fire suppression, such as water mist systems in high risk areas such as kitchen ranges or fully automated sprinkler systems that can minimise the damage caused by a growing fire. Automatic fire detection is probably the most advantageous system as this provides early warning to enable escape before the fire spreads and with modern systems the scourge of false alarms can be easily managed; automatic detection can also be linked to hold-open devices to aid easy movement around a school and prevent damage to expensive fire doors but are released on operation of the fire detection and alarm system. Suppression and sprinkler systems difficult to retrofit but are considered in new school design.
Fire safety management provides the link between the passive and active systems; any good management system starts with effective fire evacuation plans backed up by staff fire safety training and planned preventative maintenance of fire safety systems. Evacuation plans are required under the FSO with the RP required to make plans in case of serious and imminent danger and to nominate a sufficient number of competent persons to implement those procedures, where they relate to evacuation, and to carry out safety drills. In reality this means to prepare an evacuation plan, appoint fire wardens (or marshals) to assist in carrying out the plan and arrange fire drills to practice the procedures. Some schools claim that there is no need for fire wardens, however, it is essential that a sweep is made through a premise by trained personnel to ensure there are no stragglers, while leaving the teaching staff to evacuate the bulk of the students.
With day schools fire evacuation is often a simple matter with all of the pupils and staff being awake and able to respond quickly to a fire alarm; boarding schools, however, will have problems with the issue of 'pre-movement time' factoring heavily into the evacuation. When awake, the time taken for an individual to move in response to a fire alarm in a school is often short as the fire drills educate students to respond quickly and orderly – in a boarding situation there may be some delay while waking and preparing for evacuation and the fire safety provisions for a boarding school will be enhanced to compensate for this additional risk. Similar pre-movement times may be found in schools with younger children or those with special needs and fire evacuation plans will need to consider the issues relevant to the risk.
Special consideration may also have to be given to the evacuation of disabled staff or students who may need assistance to negotiate stairs and Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) should be prepared and agreed in advance; it must be emphasised that the RP is responsible for evacuating all persons using the school to a place of final safety and that persons cannot be left in refuges awaiting rescue by the fire service. Additional training may be required in the use of special evacuation chairs and in the use of any emergency voice communications equipment that may be provided at refuge areas.
Fire drills are critical in all circumstances; drills should be carried out at least once a term and at different times of the day – there should be an assumption that a fire had occurred in a particular location and one or more of the escape routes may be affected causing staff and students to think and react to changing circumstances. One particularly keen school we visited held drills ten minutes before the start time of the school when the parents were dropping children off and visiting reception, children were playing and staff were least prepared for a drill!
This is where fire safety training is the important link; the Order states that suitable and sufficient training must be provided "in order to safeguard himself [the trainee] and other relevant persons on the premises". Training should be given at induction on basic fire safety matters such as the actions to take in case of discovering a fire or on hearing the fire alarm, location of the fire exits and assembly point – enhanced training should be given to personnel who may be required to act as fire wardens or use the fire extinguishers provided on the premises.
It is always important to maintain a 'fire log book' where all testing and training is recorded; this should be kept available for the enforcing authority to examine should they visit. The maintenance of such records is not explicitly required under the FSO, however, it is a simple method of proving compliance should there be any problems.
In addition to the evacuation plan any school should have a fire safety policy that includes the following details:
The document should be provided to fully reflect the requirements of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) and should be made available to any enforcing officer from the local fire authority.
Of course all of the foregoing applies to new as well as existing schools, however, the guidance available for a new school is different and in some ways more extensive. Most new buildings will have to comply with UK Building Regulations and these are known as functional requirements and the requirements relevant to fire are contained within section B1 to B5; the regulations are supported by technical guidance in the form of Approved Document B. The technical requirements for schools are described by Building Bulletin 100: design for fire safety in schools and this document is the normal means of compliance with building regulations for fire safety design in new school buildings. However, other guidance such as British Standard 9999:2017. "Code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings" or a fire engineered design from first principles may be used. The different means of achieving compliance with the Building Regulations may permit more innovative design and relaxations on guidance that is considered inflexible by many architects, often by using compensatory features such as fire detection systems to achieve quicker response times to incipient fires which may allow the designers to increase the travel distances and thereby maximising the areas available for teaching.
Whichever route is chosen the school management should be involved in the design from the start; for any substantial new building, a fire strategy should be written by the design team that explains the methodology behind the new build and the evacuation strategy. This is the chance for the school to comment on factors in the design and it is imperative that you consider the following issues:
Examples to avoid are excessive dead end conditions (where escape is available in one direction only), large 'sterile' areas (kept free from combustible items) usually provided to ensure that a design team can overcome a problem with protected staircases and complex fire detection configurations. Also avoid aesthetics such as oversized glazed fire doors that look great on a drawing but weigh so much that no hinge can possibly hold them in place nor will any door closer be robust enough to withstand regular usage encountered in a busy school. The best advice is to get a second opinion from a specialist in school fire safety design, as this may save you tens of thousands of pounds in maintenance and management costs.
Building Control authorities or Approved Inspectors supervise construction and issue final certificates upon completion, however, on occupation, the enforcement responsibility passes to the Fire and Rescue Services under the FSO and enforcement or prohibition notices could be issued if the premises are not deemed safe under the order.
It is worth mentioning in this section that whenever contractors are on site your fire risk may increase many fold; please ensure that you use 'Permits to Work', especially for hot work. Once again take advice if you are unsure and there is good advice available in the DCLG guidance referred to earlier and on websites such as the HSE and 'Safe Contractor'.
So you've made all of your plans, maintained all of your systems and trained your staff yet still a fire occurs. Firstly, are you prepared to let your staff tackle an incipient fire? Although fighting fire can be classified as hazardous and 'health and safety' may have to be considered, it would also be ludicrous to let your school burn down for the sake of using a simple extinguisher. We use fire almost every day of our lives for cooking, power and many entertainment and aesthetic reasons – fire needs respect but on most occasions it can be controlled and often extinguished. It's about knowing your evacuation plan, which must take priority as well as your staff's capabilities and training in fire extinguishers.
If the fire is out of your control then you must summon the assistance of the fire service – who is responsible for this call should be specified in your evacuation plan. Sometimes this is carried out automatically via your detection system; it will nevertheless do no harm to dial 999 to confirm a fire situation and may even prompt the local fire service to commit more resources to the incident. When the fire service arrives prepare to be bombarded with questions from the incident commander about any missing persons, location of the fire, access points, fire hydrants, asbestos registers, hazardous materials and gas cylinders etc. Always nominate a senior incident controller to field the questions and respond. It is always useful to have a simple diagram of the building and a list of any hazards available to give to the incident commander.
You may be able to work with the fire service to salvage some valuable items from the school. Include this in your planning; items may include art works but also may include staff items. The author of this article has stood outside many schools on fire and it is quite traumatic to deny staff access to their car and house keys but any access has to be safe. Always encourage your staff to think about this aspect and make their own contingency plan.
But what is your school's contingency? What do you do if your school, or some major part of it, is not there tomorrow? Have you considered the effect and made plans to move, who would you need to contact to resolve insurance claims and what is your priority for a new location? It is important to consider these issues before any incident.
Fires are a random and unplanned occurrence; even with the best software and inputs the biggest computer cannot tell you where a fire will strike next. However, a fire risk assessor will be able to let you know how probable it is that your school will have a fire. Don't forget the old fashioned 'housekeeping' which is important to reduce the loose fire-loading and keep an eye on the displays of students work in corridors and the occasional cloakroom overspill!
Pictures are worth a thousand words, so we have added a few images we took in schools. The images should help the RP to identify typical risks found in schools. This list of fire safety rule violations are of course much longer than this small selection. You might, nevertheless, find this helpful.
Smoke detector covers come in a range of styles and covers to suit all decorative styles – but please make sure the contractors remove them before leaving. Make any isolation of smoke detectors subject to a 'permit to work'
Ensure your electrical equipment is fit for use and used appropriately.
Exits, and routes to exits, should be kept clear and unobstructed at all times. Make sure they are always available in an emergency and the use of a key of any sort is not permitted.
Please keep stair landings in the school clear of obstructions and flammable items (Pictures copyright John Brown)
Reviewed: 15/04/2019 (doc:132 V1.1). Our articles are reviewed regularly. However, any changes made to standards or legislation following the review date will not have been considered. Please note that we provide abridged, easy-to-understand guidance. To make detailed decisions about your fire safety provisions, you might require further advice or need to consult the full standards and legislation.