It’s always shocking to read how many schools suffer from arson attacks. The casual observer might consider these incidences a thing of the past. A quick google search would very quickly put paid to that notion.
In March this year, insurance firm Zurich crunched the numbers and released a number of headline findings about fires in schools. They revealed that, in the period 2016-2021, there were 2,300 school fires “destroying 47 primary and secondary school buildings alone.” On this incidence rate they predicted that “more than 390,000 teaching hours could be lost in the next year.”
In terms of drilling down what percentage of these fires are caused by arson, there’s a lack of regular statistics available, although a useful guide can be taken from a report by the British Association of Insurers in 2016. It stated that 40% of major fires were being “deliberately set”, equating to 20 schools a week suffering an arson attack. The report added that a third of these were occurring during school hours. Other reports have put the percentage at almost double this figure.
The chaos and heartbreak wrought by an arson attack is illustrated by a case study published by the Fire Safety Advice Centre of a school in the North West of England that suffered an arson attack costing £1.2million.
The block that was destroyed contained 16 teaching rooms the library, the main office, pastoral offices, the offices of the headteacher and the deputy headteacher and the staff room. The history and geography departments completely wiped out and the modern languages, mathematics, English, special educational needs and RE departments badly damaged.
“The first reaction is shock and numbness,” said the headteacher, “followed by total disbelief and then realisation that 25 years of resources had gone. All the carefully collected photographs, booklets and artifacts from all over Europe had gone, all the paperwork for the administration of public examinations had gone, and all the school text books and personal belongings had gone.”
With SATS and GCSEs imminent, the timing could not have been worse. New arrangements had to be made with the exam boards, meanwhile, mobile classrooms were set up and the old block became a demolition site and then a building site.
There are five recognised areas that every school should look at to help avoid arson. Many of these will figure in your school’s security plan already but it’s well worth familiarising yourself with them and also discussing arson prevention with your local crime prevention officer.
1. Deterring unauthorised entry into your school site
If it isn’t already, the boundary of your school should be clearly delineated. This makes it clear to an intruder that they’re on private property – perhaps more importantly it means that anyone nearby, e.g. neighbouring buildings can spot an incursion.
Having good relations with any neighbours can really help, not just for ad hoc sightings of intruders and disturbances but also in assistance with blocking access from nearby buildings, or even formalised as part of a Neighbourhood Watch initiative. Failing that, a Schools Watch scheme could be set up with the local police.
A human presence. While it’s not always the case that staff live on site, it can be helpful if there is a residential presence, e.g. caretaker. Failing that, random patrols conducted by a security firm could be an option. Liaison with the police would be required in this care.
Lighting. As most intrusions place outside of school hours, lighting is crucial to highlight trespassers to anyone nearby and to security cameras. However, there’s a balance to be struck between areas that are overlooked and not-overlooked (deep recesses and alcoves, for example), with lighting in the latter areas a possible attraction for unauthorised visitors. Another thing to consider is using lighting tone that complements your CCTV.
2. Preventing unauthorised entry into your school
Advice on arson suggests keeping the key points of entry – doors and windows – to a minimum. This is something that would have to be retrospectively applied in most cases and – crucially – it would require liaison with the Fire Brigade given the risk of compromising fire escapes.
Doors should be as solid as possible - avoiding panel construction that can be easily be forced, e.g. without windows or recessed panels - and with reinforced hinges and frames. Any letterboxes should lead to enclosed metal boxes so as to prevent any burning materials causing damage.
All external doors and windows should be fitted with approved locks (Thief Resistant Locks BS 3621 or BS EN 1303 2015) and secured immediately after the building is vacated.
Glazed features such as roof lights can be made safer by fitting grilles/bars inside of the frame. Meanwhile, the glazing itself may need to be toughened e.g. by lamination.
Intruder alarms connected to a call monitoring centre should be installed, particularly in areas where intruders can be detected moving between rooms, e.g. corridors.
CCTV is a key factor for any security concern. It’s important to make sure your system will record images admissible in court, so specialist advice should be sought on this. Joint monitoring systems between schools and local councils can help spread the cost.
Just as with outside of the building, human monitoring is crucial, especially at times where the school is open to the wider public e.g. for parents’ evenings, clubs, societies etc. On these occasions, it would be advisable to have a designated member of staff to check external doors and windows are locked and the premises are empty, in line with Fire Safety protocol of course.
3. Reducing the opportunity for an offender to start a fire
When a would-be arsonist is foiled from entering a building they will try and start a fire outside. There are various common-sense measures you can take to frustrate these attempts.
Refuse and recycling should be stored securely in an, ideally, enclosed area situated at least 8 metres away from the main school building.
Smaller waste bins should be fixed on the ground rather than on walls and, again, well away from the main school building.
A regular refuse collection is key in all instances.
The same rule of a safe 8-metre distance also applies for sheds and storage facilities (e.g. sports equipment). Needless to say, items that are particularly vulnerable, such as heating oil, natural gas and liquid petroleum gas installations need to be very secure - an added precaution would be extra protect the pipework and meters to stop the containers being a ready fuel source.
Skirting for mobile school buildings. Mobile school buildings are particularly prone to an arson attack as they often have space at the foot of their construction. Skirting would prevent anyone from putting combustible material underneath them.
4. Reducing the scope for potential fire damage
Once an arsonist has succeeded in their criminal act, you’re relying on the Fire Prevention measures you’ve put in place to do their job.
Many schools will be laid out in the traditional manner, compartmentalised into classrooms. Open plan layouts are more difficult to protect, of course, and so any refurbishment should factor in additional fire-break walls, fire resisting screens and doors to section off the area.
Meanwhile, existing partition walls should be inspected at regular intervals. Any repairs should be seen as an opportunity to add fire-resistant products, e.g. fire retardant sealant around pipes.
An automatic fire detection system – possibly linked to an intruder alarm - giving a warning on and off-site can make all the difference in saving buildings and resources.
Both a detection and extinguishing facility, a sprinkler system is highly effective in preventing fire damage, with the potential to cover the whole floor area of the building. They are expensive systems to install, although inexpensive to run.
Fire chiefs have recently renewed their call for sprinklers to be mandatory in schools, as they are already in Scotland and Wales. Some new schools in England are being fitted with sprinkler systems but the majority of existing school buildings don’t have these systems.
Even with all these measures in place, it’s vital to protect high value items – computers, monitors, lab equipment etc – and store them in a secure and separate area.
This brings us on to…
5. Reducing losses and disruption resulting from a fire
An up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment (reflecting any changes to your building) and fire safety training refreshers for staff could go a long way to preventing the destruction and disruption resulting from any fire, caused by arson or otherwise.
An FRA will identify the most suitable fire extinguishers for your school. In cases other than electrical fires this means water. Access to water is key. An emergency water supply is advisable, this could be a swimming pool or even a pond used as a nature reserve.
Meanwhile, appropriate fire training for staff members of staff should include: how to summon the Fire Service, building evacuation, the use of fire extinguishers, and knowledge of the location of high value items, including important records, and how to recover them.
There are numerous reasons why arson is committed including personal grudges, mental health issues, a dare or prank that goes wrong and so on. It’s difficult to address most of the wider causes, of course. However, hopefully the above measures can minimise risk or – if the worst comes to worst – minimise the damage that any unfortunate incident does create.