In the wake of recent events at Bolton University, where a student accommodation tower went up in flames, Karen Trigg looks into how campus management teams must improve their fire safety and security strategies in an ongoing bid to keep students safe.
University management teams are more aware than ever of their responsibility to keep students safe and secure from all potential fire and security threats. However, after the recent events at Bolton University, where a fire ripped through the Cube Building (an accommodation block that’s home to more than 200 students) in a matter of minutes, there’s an apparent issue to be addressed.
Two years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, this shocking case has once again brought to light the serious issue of fire safety standards in high-rise and low-rise residential buildings, and specifically in our universities. Now, there’s mounting pressure on facility managers, security teams and the Government to not only re-evaluate building design, but also fire safety and security protocols in general.
While the Government is banning combustible materials on new high-rise homes and has committed to replace aluminium composite material (ACM) panels on public sector high-rise residential buildings above 18 metres in height, there’s still thousands of existing buildings that fall outside the scope of the ban.
Alarmingly, the ban also fails to include 966 existing university and school building projects. What’s more, other areas such as fire door hardware, evacuation and lockdown procedures and also campus security are all crying out for re-evaluation. On that basis, where should facility managers begin?
A university campus is a complex environment. The size and complexity of the buildings involved presents a challenge in itself. Adding to that, with student numbers rising, it would appear that facility managers have an increasing number of occupants to consider. Safety protocols need to improve.
In the last five years, more than one in every four universities have received complaints from students, staff or the public regarding fire safety or building evacuation procedures. Pair this with the state of student buildings, which in many cases are years old and not regularly maintained, and it’s perhaps not surprising that safety standards need improving across the board.
Although facility managers may not have full control over the physical building itself, they do usually have jurisdiction for the interior. With this in mind, it’s crucial for facility managers and security teams to invest in technology and infrastructure, such as door hardware and access control solutions, purpose-designed to maximise security and guarantee student safety and well-being.
First steps towards fire safety
To guarantee the safety of students, it’s critical for facility managers to ensure that all buildings are well maintained by conducting basic risk assessments. This will involve completing a full evaluation of existing systems, such as fire doors and escape routes and reviewing what measures could be implemented to enhance facility and occupant safety.
Having a well-fitted fire door is a fundamental element of this. Under the Fire Safety (Regulatory Reform) Order, universities and colleges must demonstrate that, in the event of danger, it’s possible for people to evacuate a building as quickly and safely as possible. The state of on-site fire doors falls within this.
In the circumstance of a fire, to help contain it, it’s vital that fire doors are correctly installed and maintained. This involves making sure that the door hardware (including hinges, handles, door closers, locks and signage) is certified, functional, regularly serviced and maintained.
Educating staff and students on what to look out for when checking fire doors and how to spot any potential damage is also important. Simply putting up fire safety posters and guides can go a long way in helping students to avoid easy mistakes (such as propping open fire doors) that could otherwise have detrimental consequences.
From fire detection to cloud-based security systems, there’s a range of innovative technologies that can be integrated into a university campus. Advanced security systems have a huge number of benefits that universities simply cannot ignore. With most universities being designed as ‘open environments’ wherein people can freely move about, the implementation of an integrated security system is key, and especially so when aiming to streamline the flow of movement without substituting security.
Today, with cloud-based access control, facility managers can simply issue and retract access credentials, meaning that entry can be allowed or denied based on the person, the access point or even the time of day. In the event that someone has wrongly gained access to a facility, in order to preserve student, staff and even equipment safety it’s essential to have an effective lockdown procedure in place.
To avoid any security risks, a lockdown strategy should be based on two critical factors: security layers and people and protocols. Regarding layers, every campus is made of the exterior (such as the parking area) and interior (like lecture theatres). Therefore, the plan must cover this. There must also be trained people on site to make sure protocols are followed in the event of an emergency.
Furthermore, in the possibility of a safe escape, appropriate digital signage, which can switch between a number of escape routes and guide people towards the safest exist, must be clearly seen and understood. Not only this, there must also be a designated meeting place for students and staff to congregate in the event of a fire.
Action is key
As facility managers continue to see the importance of both fire and security elements, it appears that more and more educational establishments are now integrating fire and lockdown into one critical incident plan.There’s no doubt that the safety of students should be a constant goal for facility managers and security teams.
Through education, we can improve our investments into fire safety hardware, our understanding of effective lockdown procedures and our integration of increasingly holistic procedures and infrastructures. At that point, building management teams can be confident in their efforts to protect students.
Karen Trigg is Business Development Manager at Allegion UK