Adair Lewis explores the extent of fire risks in our post offices

4 September 2019

The retail sector has been visited rarely in this series, but during our summer break we might be visiting country villages which by definition include a pub, church and post office. There are currently about 11,500 post offices in the UK, some 300 of which are classified as ‘main’ post offices, with the remainder being run by sub postmasters in their own shops or being hosted by other premises, mainly convenience stores. In towns some of the main post offices are now to be found in multiple stores such as WH Smith.

Sadly, it is estimated that up to 5,000 post offices have closed since the turn of the century. Local post offices that have survived are often a cornerstone of the community, and have become havens of minimal technology, with computers having been introduced only relatively recently. In the past ten years, there have been just seven major fires in the classification ‘post offices in other shops’. 

These types of post offices are visited by some 17m people each week, and in some cases it is this business that is maintaining the continued existence of the community store. It must be recognised that some of the low number of major fires will have originated outside the post office counter area. For example, earlier this year a fire occurred in a local shop on the south coast, which also housed the local post office in the early hours of a Sunday morning.

It was determined by the investigation that the fire had originated in the basement, where the electrical consumer units and wiring for the property were severely damaged. Thus the origin of the fire was not associated with the post office area at all. It cannot be determined from the data in how many of the instances the fire actually started in the post office.

In many buildings housing different occupancies, there is a degree of fire separation of the businesses, but in this case there is no fire compartmentation dividing the areas. This is a strange omission, since in all cases attention will have been given to the security of the post office counter, but without providing fire compartmentation to the post office area, which is open to fire spread from elsewhere.

The events considered here represent 0.12% of all large loss fires and only 1.2% of large loss fires in retail premises as a whole. Therefore, despite the high fire load of paper, forms, stationery and the like which are normally in evidence, post offices should not necessarily be regarded as being particularly high fire risk areas. This conclusion is supported by there having been one large fire for every 1,643 post offices during the past ten years.

In addition to the ‘other shops’, the large loss fire database also includes just one fire in a single occupancy, purpose built post office. This was deliberately started in the early hours of the morning, but no financial details of the loss are provided. It is interesting to note that in the case of post offices in other shops, nearly half of the fires (45.4%) were caused deliberately, with a correspondingly lower proportion being accidental (27.3% compared with 48.4% in retail as a whole). 

Loss Analysis Table Post Office

It is tempting to question whether some of these fires have been set to mask the evidence of theft, but there is no information available to support this. Nevertheless, the high incidence of deliberate fire raising begs the question as to whether there is a link to the occupancy or whether the small sample size is not statistically significant.

Statistics related to the time of the fire also differ markedly between shops in general and those that incorporate post office counters. The proportion of those in post offices originating in the two six-hour sectors between midnight and midday is – in each case – double those in shops in general (a total of 58.4% compared with 28.2%). 

It also seems anomalous that there has been no major fire in a post office having been recorded as starting between midday and midnight, although it is acknowledged that these are the hours when the shop (but not necessarily the post office counter) will be open for business, and thus staff and customers will be present. Firefighters met only one problem when responding to the calls to these premises and in one case there was a problem with access, but 

this may well relate to the security measures at the premises rather than access for firefighting vehicles.

The average loss in a fire in a shop hosting a post office is some 40% less than in an average shop. This at first sight is logical in that it may reflect the open queuing area that is necessary in a post office, and the low level and value of the stock. On the other hand, it is curious that the insurance component for loss of stock (10.3% of the loss) is greater for a post office than other form of shop with no post office counter (7.2%). 

The proportion of the loss attributed to the contents (13.7%) is also greater than that for other shops (6.3%). The solution may be that the anomaly is due to stocks being of high value and low volume, consisting of items such as stamps and postal orders. The zero loss recorded for machinery and plant will probably be due to the post offices in this survey being tenants of the shops, but may also reflect the low tech business that the post office operates.

While the value put on business interruption (29% of the loss) is the same for shops containing post offices as other shops, this reflects just the financial loss – the loss of a local post office to the community cannot be so easily quantified, and results in a high level of inconvenience, especially to older and infirm people that may not be able to travel to an alternative venue.

Adair Lewis is technical consultant at the Fire Protection Association.

Adair Lewis explores the extent of fire risks in our post offices