Chris Peters, chief design manager, looks at arson in schools and some simple steps to minimise risk and damage.
Last November fire badly damaged Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders.
At its height, some 70 firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
However, the good news is that pupils will start to return to their classrooms within the next few days.
It’s a reminder that fires in schools are not uncommon. Indeed, in England alone, there are about 700 school fires a year.
It’s also a reminder that many school fires are started deliberately. After the Peebles fire, two pupils were charged in connection with it.
Generally, school fires are most likely to be started by pupils or ex-pupils or their friends and almost half are aged between 10 and 16.
The majority of deliberate fires are started at night or during holiday periods. Casualties are therefore rare although, in 1990, three children were killed in a school fire in Essex.
The Arson Prevention Bureau says that the great majority of deliberate fires happen outside school hours with a peak at around 11pm.
The real cost of arson in schools, apart from the capital outlays required to repair the damage, is the disruption caused – for example, the loss of coursework that can have severe exam consequences.
As with any commercial building, schools should regularly assess the vulnerability of their premises, and plan accordingly.
Zurich Municipal who insure 50% of the UK school buildings carried out an inspection spanning two years and found that 67% of English Schools were rated as having poor fire protection provision. Only 5% were classed as excellent. In Scotland, 29% were rated as excellent.
The higher figure for Scotland partly reflects the requirement for Scottish schools to fit sprinkler systems.
The Fire Safety Advice Centre has a useful Questionnaire that will help complete an arson assessment.
The assessment will identify areas of vulnerability, which can often be addressed by simple good sense. For example, to keep flammable materials safely stored away.
There are, essentially, five areas to be looked into:
- Deterrence of unauthorised entry
- Prevention of unauthorised entry
- Fire risk reduction
- Reduction of potential fire damage
- Preparation of a recovery plan.
First, delineate the school’s premises with a robust fence. This in itself is a clear signal to would-be trespassers that they are now on private property.
Second, good lighting. As most deliberate fires are started at night, well-lit school grounds will act as a simple means of deterrence.
This mostly takes place through doors and windows. Consideration should therefore be given to strengthening those points of entry.
At Wrightstyle, we have long experience of working with schools and our range of fire-protecting doors and window systems also provide a robust defence against trespassers.
In addition, schools should consider the installation of intruder alarms and CCTV. These may have significant up-front costs but the evidence is that they have a high deterrence factor and, over, time, reduce the costs of vandalism.
Fire risk reduction
Many school fires are started externally, but which spread internally. A simple rule is to keep all flammable materials – for example, refuse – safely secured away from school buildings.
Simple common sense is the watchword here. An arsonist is looking to cause easy mischief: if an arsonist wants to set fire to a waste bin, make sure that it’s located at a safe distance from the school itself.
Reducing fire damage
If a fire is started, it’s imperative that damage is limited. Ideally, this should involve compartmentation, so that a fire can’t spread from its point of origin.
Again, Wrightstyle is a specialist in the design, fabrication and supply of fire-protective internal screens and doors.
These not only prevent the spread of fire but, if a fire occurs when the building is in use, provide safe escape routes for pupils and staff.
Our advanced glazing systems are also appropriate to protect rooms with high-value items such as audio or computer equipment.
Lastly, consideration should be given to the installation of a sprinkler system, and automatic fire detection systems should be regularly tested.
In Scotland all new schools and those undergoing major refurbishment have a legal directive to fit sprinklers. In England it is advised but not mandatory.
Reduction of loss
The initial fire risk assessment should have identified where the appropriate fire extinguishers should be located. However, it’s important that staff understand how to use them and on what kind of fire.
Again, common sense makes perfect sense. Hold regular fire drills and make sure that everyone, staff and pupils, are vigilant.
Fires often start from the smallest of causes, not necessarily deliberate, like a dropped cigarette. So, make sure that any rarely-used rooms in which are stored flammable materials are safely locked.
A school fire, even a relatively small one, can cause great disruption. Classrooms may be put out of action. Coursework may be lost.
Therefore, a recovery plan is eminently sensible. This should be developed in consultation with the LEA Risk Management Group, if one exists, or the Local Education Authority.
This will better allow for continuity of teaching, perhaps at nearby schools or in temporary classrooms.
Wrightstyle has worked with schools, architects and educational authorities in the UK and internationally.
Our advanced systems are regarded as best-in-class and are accredited to UK, European, US and Asian fire safety standards.
It’s why our systems are supplied and, if required installed, complete and guaranteed.
Arson fires in schools can be financial disasters and can have damaging educational consequences for pupils. Make sure that it can’t happen.