School fire

NEW DATA from UK fire and rescue services (FRSs) provided by Zurich Municipal also found that only 2% of these schools had sprinklers fitted.

In September, the insurer published its findings from a study into English school fires, which found English schools were ‘twice as likely’ to suffer fires than other buildings. The findings from the study, which the insurer called the ‘most comprehensive […] to date’, came from analysing data on all English schools, including personal inspections of over 1,000 primary and secondary schools.

It said that there was a ‘perfect storm’ of risky buildings and ‘poor fire detection and prevention measures’, with 26,866 schools analysed and the average fire risk ‘almost double that of non-residential buildings’. Despite a ‘greater risk of a fire starting’, inspections found that 66% of schools lack ‘adequate fixed fire protection measures’ such as sprinklers, while 24% were rated ‘poor’ for fire detection’.

Additionally, firefighters have been called to ‘nearly 2,000’ school fires in the last three years, with the insurer and other organisations calling for sprinklers to be mandatory in English schools as part of the government’s £1bn school rebuilding programme. The average school posed a fire risk 1.7 times greater than non residential buildings, with Zurich’s model giving schools a fire risk score of 0.58 compared to non residential buildings’ score of 0.33.

In comparison to 2.9m non household properties, schools were ‘three times more likely’ to be in the high fire risk category, with 33,000 fires from the last six years analysed ‘to identify factors that increase the likelihood of a blaze’, and a fire risk score produced. Factors for calculating this consisted of listed status, the presence of cooking equipment and the building’s size.

Zurich added that ‘despite being far riskier than average’ in terms of fire, many schools ‘also lack the equipment needed to prevent small fires becoming major disasters’. Out of the inspections, only 14% of the schools were rated good or excellent by Zurich, with the leading causes of fires including ‘malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, arson and kitchen’ fires.

Larger school fires cost an average of £2.8m to repair, ‘and in some cases over’ £20m, while bigger and older schools – such as those with canteens, or secondary schools that have ‘more complex and dangerous equipment – were ‘identified as particularly at risk’, with a correlation between poor Ofsted ratings and a ‘greater risk of fire’ also seen in the analysis.

Zurich’s findings led it to launch a parliamentary petition urging MPs to ‘change the law on sprinklers in schools’, as while they are compulsory in ‘all new major or refurbished’ school buildings in Scotland and Wales, ‘this is not the case in England’ where ‘in fact, they are fitted in fewer than one in six new schools’. Its analysis has found that over 7m pupils at primary and secondary schools are taught in the 58% of buildings that are a ‘high fire risk’.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently pledged £1.56bn to fund a school rebuilding and repair programme over the next ten years, and it estimates that the repair costs for school fires could reach £320m in that time, a ‘significant portion’ of the investment pledged. As a result, it said it wants the government to ‘ring-fence’ some of this to ‘improve the resilience of schools at high risk of fire’.

With insurers working closely with schools to help them manage fire risks, ‘the installation of sprinklers minimise the dangers from the outset’. The insurer has now added further detail from its study, including that 40 schools a month were hit by fires in 2019, with around 480 primary and secondary schools affected over the course of the year. This came from FRS data from 41 of the 54 UK FRSs, and equated to over 15,000m2 of damage to classrooms.

The education of almost 20,000 children was ‘impacted’ with many ‘displaced from their usual school building’, Zurich added, with the figures breaking down into over 271 primary schools and 209 secondary schools that suffered fire damage in 2019. Only 2% of the schools hit by fires in 2019 meanwhile had sprinklers, and only 15% of all new build schools constructed and opened in the UK since 2011 have had them fitted.

Tilden Watson, head of education at Zurich Municipal, said: ‘With children’s education already severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing we need is further disruption as a result of preventable school fires. As insurers, we work closely with schools to help them manage their fire risks but a simple solution such as the installation of sprinklers could minimise the dangers from the outset, avoiding months or even years of upheaval while the repairs are being carried out.

‘It also preserves the community space, for which schools are often used out of hours. As well as protecting pupils, sprinklers drastically reduce the extent of damage when there is a blaze, often confining the fire to a single room. This gets children back into schools and classrooms quicker as well as saving taxpayers’ money so why is the Government not willing to make this investment now, minimising the impact on our children, potentially saving lives and millions of pounds in repair costs?’

Andy Dark, assistant general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, commented: ‘The poor standard of fire safety provision in our schools is nothing short of a scandal. A major feature of this failure to invest is the lack of sprinklers. It makes clear and unchallengeable economic sense to have sprinklers fitted; it has huge support amongst teachers and parents and has universal support amongst fire service professionals and the wider fire community.

‘It is impossible to imagine why the Government has dragged its heels on this issue. Raising the level of fire protection and prevention in schools ticks all the boxes: protecting the education of students; protecting the community assets which the school infrastructure provides; reducing the damage caused by smoke and fire; and reducing the risks to both school-users and the firefighters who are called upon to extinguish the fires.

‘It’s time for the government to stop prevaricating. It’s time for MPs of all parties to press for the government to urgently introduce the mandatory fitting and retro-fitting of sprinklers in all schools.’

Last month, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chartered Institute of Building and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors all signed a joint statement calling on the government ‘to require the installation of sprinklers in schools’, including retrofitting sprinklers in existing school buildings ‘when relevant refurbishment takes place’.

All four said that they will each ‘bring forward guidance’ for their own professionals ‘in line with this statement in the absence of government legislation’. Also last month, the NFCC called for all schools to have sprinklers fitted in the aftermath of two fires at schools in Derbyshire fires, while Derbyshire County Council ‘refused to name’ other schools in the county without sprinklers.

Harrington Junior School in Long Eaton was destroyed in May, while Ravensdale Infant and Nursery School and St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy were destroyed last month. The fire at Ravensdale was ‘ruled as arson’, while the fire at Harrington was ‘accidental and caused by county council staff carrying out refurbishments’, with the cause of the fire at St Mary’s having ‘not yet been disclosed’.

A temporary replacement for Harrington, built by the council without planning permission in July, was constructed without sprinklers ‘despite the demise of its predecessor’, with DCC stating that this was ‘standard for temporary buildings of this nature’. In the past five years, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS) was called out to 32 fires at schools across the county and city, and eight of those had occurred since April 2019.

The council cited the ‘perceived risk of potential arsonists targeting schools without sprinklers’ when asked to name schools, claiming that the ‘public interest in naming the schools is outweighed by the public interest in refusing to do so’. DFRS chief fire officer Gavin Tomlinson called for sprinklers in the county schools as a result of the recent fires.