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Fire risk assessments in schools: could we be sleepwalking into a disaster?

by Brian Sims

Government statistics show a steady downward trend in fires in schools from approximately 1,300 incidents in 2000-2001 to 700 in 2011-2012. However, we shouldn’t become complacent” arson in schools still accounts for nearly 180 fires every year. The Fire Industry Association’s technical manager Philip Martin explains the fire risks facing modern schools and what can be done to keep these locations safe. Schools are changing places. They’re facing budget cuts and increasing demands to accept students of all abilities. Secondary schools are being pressured into concentrating more on vocational studies, which could suggest an increase in laboratory and workshop activities. Budget cuts could result in a reduced investment in fire safety measures, just as there is an increase in the number of vulnerable people and hazards. It’s a potentially dangerous combination. We need to bear in mind that fire safety legislation, which requires a fire risk assessment to be carried out in all schools throughout the UK, is focused on life safety. However, the biggest concern for many school governors may be the risk of arson. The life safety fire risk assessment isn’t concerned with property protection, but any measure taken to preserve life will tend to protect property. The Fire Risk Assessment The first question you should consider when carrying out a fire risk assessment is: ‘How can a fire start?’ The answer naturally falls into one of two groups: accidental or deliberate. Not all hazards can be eliminated but they can all be managed. The Government’s guidance on educational premises covers this quite thoroughly. When considering measures to prevent arson it helps to use your imagination. Stand outside the premises when it’s locked and empty and ask yourself how you would start a fire. Remember, most arsonists come prepared with nothing more than a lighter. That bin full of paper or pile of timber against the wall will start to look very appealing. We need to think about physical security and removing or securing combustibles away from the school buildings, particularly away from overhanging eaves. We then need to think about intruder alarms and CCTV, both as a deterrent and response. Finally, we need to consider fire detection and sprinklers. BB100 offers some very sound advice on these matters. As the fire risk assessor, you will need to look at the physical fire safety measures, the hardware and the management of fire safety, the software. Oddly, the hardware is probably the easier to assess as you can see and touch it. The software can be a puzzle. You may have detailed procedures and comprehensive records but you need to be confident that they will work if put into practice. It could be useful to ask members of staff specific questions about what they are supposed to do and what they would actually do. Ask them direct questions about what they know in relation to fire safety and who’s responsible for what on site. Taking responsibility: who’s in control? This raises another question: ‘Who’s in control?’ Getting everyone in academic institutions to work together can be difficult. However, to make the premises safe someone has to take control, both generally and in an emergency. Legally, the organisation has to appoint an individual (or individuals) to be responsible for all aspects of fire safety. If more than one person is given responsibility, they should be co-ordinated and share information between them. Everyone in the organisation must be clear about their part in maintaining fire safety. It may seem obvious that fire protection equipment such as fire alarms, extinguishers and emergency lighting should be serviced on a regular basis. Also needing a system of inspection and maintenance are less obvious things such as fire-resisting walls, floors (ceilings) and doors, along with fire exits, extract systems (eg cooker hoods), ducts (especially fire dampers in ducts), fire safety signs and notices, fixed electrical systems and portable appliances (to name but a few). Much of this maintenance isn’t costly or time consuming. A simple walk around can be sufficient for inspecting and maintaining these, and it could be combined with checks on security and general housekeeping. There are two key points to note. The maintenance has to be planned and it has to be recorded. A simple logbook can help. The FIA has developed a new logbook which is available from FIA member companies. The management of fire safety also needs periodic review looking at various aspects such as who is responsible for the management system, staff training, procedures (and not just the emergency procedures), records of maintenance supplier contracts and, of course, the fire risk assessment itself. Fire drills will prove that the evacuation strategy works. Government guidance recommends that such a drill is carried out at least once a year and, preferably, every term. To be effective the drill needs to be planned, people informed and the drill monitored to avoid unnecessary risks (such as accidents on stairs). The results of a drill can give valuable information on planning, training and the effectiveness of the facilities like alarms and escape routes. Occasionally, a full evacuation isn’t desirable for reasons of safety. In this instance, some form of simulation or desk top exercise may be sufficient but only in exceptional circumstances. Safe escape for everyone? Naturally, schools should be open to students of all abilities. The premises should be adapted to ensure students can get into the premises and access all of the amenities. However, everyone must be able to get out in an emergency. We need to consider people with mobility and sensory impairment as well as those with intellectual and emotional impairment and how they may respond in an emergency. Think about both the hardware and the software when you ask yourself these questions’

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