With the Local Government Association noting that ‘on average, each year in the UK there are over 1,500 fires in schools and other educational establishments, the logistical planning and implementation of facilities needed for an effect Fire Protection System cover are a serious undertaking.
Some of the advice given – such as planning niches in walls to house fire extinguishers or compartmentalisation – are measures that might only be feasible when planning new school buildings, or refurbishing them, rather than creating in an existing one. However, there are, of course, plenty of boxes that you should be ticking right now to keep your school as safe as possible.
Here, we cover the headline measures and the standout actions required for each.
Means of escape
Analyse your building to determine where the main fire threats are, e.g. near a chemistry lab, and the areas that it might spread to. When a fire starts, the smoke and toxic gases produced are the first threat and could quickly make an escape route impassable. Where possible, there need to be other accessible escape routes that people can use, away from the source of the fire.
Automatic Fire Detection (AFD)
The earlier a fire is detected and occupants alerted, the better, of course. This allows more time to escape and raises the probability that less material damage will occur, with the earlier arrival of the fire service. Some AFD systems will have a direct link to a Fire and Rescue Service monitoring centre. To manage the rising number of false alarms, a 999 call may still be needed to confirm the alarm raised by AFD. Local authorities will usually say on their website what their policy is.
Sometimes, AFD is linked to other systems such as hold-open fire doors, smoke extraction or ventilation, suppression systems and fire dampers in ventilation ducts.
Clearly positioned, easy-to-read signs in pictogram form (supplemented by text, if needed, but not text-only) must be used to give instructions on how to use any fire safety equipment (e.g. extinguishers, fire telephones); the actions to be taken in the event of fire (e.g. what escape routes to use) and information for the Fire and Rescue Service.
Other factors to take into account are whether the signs are appropriate to the age and ability of students.
Emergency lighting – whether it is maintained (on at all times) or non-maintained (i.e. only used of normal lighting fails) – is required to illuminate escape routes and exit signs; show changes in building level or direction of escape routes and ensure that fire alarm call points and fire-fighting equipment can be easily located.
Emergency lighting systems can be powered by a battery, which must be checked regularly, or a backup generator.
For the most, part smoke will be contained by doors and walls. However, smoke ventilation systems can increase the time it takes for smoke to be a threat to life and also prevent smoke contaminating books and equipment. Larger spaces, such as a sports hall, will require more engineered systems.
Fire extinguishers should be provided in your building of a type suitable for all probable types of fire including electrical, gaseous, and wood, paper and textiles. In terms of the regularity of their provision, one rule of thumb suggested is ‘one Class A [fires in ordinary combustible materials, such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics] fire extinguisher for every 200m2, with at least two of these extinguishers per floor of the building.’
While not mandatory in existing school buildings – yet – the installation of sprinkler systems is regarded as industry best practice and have been mandatory in new build schools since 2007.
Sprinklers can control fires at an early stage and wetting the area around it can stop it from spreading further, buying time before the arrival of the fire service. Typically they are installed throughout a building, but they can be placed as a ‘compensatory feature’ to address a specific risk or hazard.
Crucial considerations to ensure the continuing effectiveness of a sprinkler system are: maintenance of the system; secure access to water and ensuring that the system’s pipework is protected from fire.
Fire doors and compartmentalisation
Designed to sub-divide long corridors to manage how long a stretch is affected by smoke, or to separate stairs from smoke-filled corridors, fire doors can be connected to AFD and alarms so that stand-alone or integrated hold open devices can operate to allow staff
and pupils to move through the building via the safest route. Fire doors will normally have glass panels so that people can see what is on the other side, e.g whether a room is filled with smoke or not.
Do you need help?
If you think you might have an issue you’d like to talk through with a fire safety expert, please get in touch.