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The cost of a school fire can be huge. Lives are at risk. Fire damage is not only expensive to repair, it causes disruption and can even affect exam results, and staff and pupil morale.

What measures do schools need to take to minimise the risk of fire, keep everyone safe and comply with fire regulations?

Fire risk assessments

All schools must complete a fire risk assessment. This needs to be updated regularly. Fire risk assessments identify what precautions are needed to prevent fires in schools.

They also need to identify what happens if a fire does break out, and how people can evacuate easily and safely.

You will need to:

  • Ensure procedures are in place to reduce the likelihood of fire
  • Maintain fire detection and alarm systems
  • Ensure staff and pupils are familiar with emergency evacuation procedures.

It is important that:

  • Fire risk assessments are kept up to date
  • Fire precautions remain current and adequate (they should be reviewed in detail when significant alterations are made to a school’s premises).

The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a guide for schools — fire safety risk assessment: educational premises. The guide deals with the provision and management of fire safety.

Quick tips for fire safety in schools

Day-to-day there are some very simple measures you can take to make sure your school is fire safe, and prevent risk to life and property. Make sure that:

  • Fire doors are in good working order
  • Evacuation plans are up to date
  • Regular fire drills are undertaken
  • Means of escape routes are kept clear and have no obstructions
  • Fire doors are not wedged open
  • Rubbish and waste is removed from the building and stored in secure bins that cannot be accessed by intruders
  • High value equipment is out of sight in a locked separate room.

Think about areas might be high risk in your school. Are chemicals stored correctly in the science lab? Is there a procedure to ensure all Bunsen burners are turned off and safely stored? If you have a lighting rig in the hall or drama department, has it been tested to ensure it is safe?

Arson

Arson is the act of intentionally setting fire to buildings, areas, vehicles or any other type of property and is one of the leading causes of school fires.

Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service has recommendations for preventing arson at schools including:

  • Maintain an effective intruder alarm system that is connected to a call-monitoring centre.
  • Obtain advice on lighting and CCTV from the local Crime Reduction Officer
  • Ensure all doors windows and skylights are secure. A nominated person should be responsible for making sure all doors and windows are closed and locked at the end of each day
  • Remove graffiti immediately. If it’s left, vandals might start to see the school as a target
  • Maintain good relationships with neighbours and encourage them to contact the police if they see anything unusual.

For more information, click here for Mersey Fire and Rescue’s full guidance on arson risk in schools.

Sprinkler systems

Sprinklers are mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and Wales but not in England and Northern Ireland.

However the national Fire Chiefs Council has criticised this and recommends that sprinklers are fitted in all new school buildings.

The damaging effect of fire

On the morning of Sunday 21st August 2016, there were over 60 calls to 999 as fire broke out on the roof of the Selsey Academy near Chichester.  

An eyewitness who lives near the school said there were: “plumes and plumes of black smoke towering above the house, rather like an apocalypse”.

Firefighters drove through miles of dense, black smoke as they rushed to the scene. Up to 100 firefighters tackled the fire, which is thought to have started at around 8am, bringing it under control in the late afternoon.

The school suffered extensive damage, leaving it in ruins.

While the school begins the long and expensive task of rebuilding, the pupils are starting the year in temporary classrooms.

The cost of ignoring fire safety

Hekmat Kaveh, the owner of one of Britain’s top independent schools was ordered to pay nearly £50,000 for risking pupils’ lives by having inadequate fire safety measures.

Kaveh, who owns and manages Abbey College in Malvern, Worcestershire, admitted 15 fire safety breaches when he appeared in court. He was fined £24,000 for the offences and ordered to pay £25,000 court costs.

Worcester Crown Court heard that the school allowed children to sleep in boarding houses which had faulty smoke alarms and non-functional fire doors.

Judge Michael Cullum commented that Kaveh’s fire risk assessment was “woefully inadequate” and that he had “both a moral and legal responsibility for the staff and children. The consequences of a fire would have been disastrous”.

Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service brought the prosecution against Kaveh after inspectors visited the school in March 2011. Kaveh told the court: “Clearly, I was let down by those people employed and instructed to review the fire assessment at the start of the year, but the law is clear in that the employer is the responsible person and for that reason I had no option but to plead guilty.

“The college now meets all regulatory requirements. Obviously the fire assessments were reviewed when I was made aware of this by external contractors.”

Following sentencing, deputy chief officer Richard Lawrence said: “This was an extremely serious case where those living and sleeping inside the premises were being put at risk.

“Business owners have a clear responsibility to ensure that both the public and their employees are as safe as possible from the risk of fire.

“This verdict sends out a clear message: in severe cases where responsibilities are ignored, we will prosecute, as it is never acceptable to put lives at risk.”

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