Derby school fire

DERBYSHIRE COUNTY Council (DCC) ‘refused to name’ schools in the county that have no sprinklers fitted, ‘despite’ three having been destroyed in fires in the last four months’.

Ripley and Heanor News reported that council officials ‘have refused to name’ other schools in the county that do not have sprinklers fitted, despite three schools without sprinklers having been ‘devastated’ by fires ‘in the past 131 days’, these fires ‘displacing hundreds of pupils and resulting in millions of pounds of rebuild costs’. The news outlet also pointed out that there have been ‘more than 30 fires’ at Derbyshire schools in the past five years alone.

After Harrington Junior School in Long Eaton was destroyed in May, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) submitted a freedom of information request to DCC asking it to name schools without sprinklers, and it had a ‘legal duty to respond within 20 working days’, but ‘chose to take nearly triple that time’, or 58 days, to respond – and only after two other schools were destroyed by fires last weekend, Ravensdale Infant and Nursery School and St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy.

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 DCC 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) had been called out to 32 fires at schools across the county and city, and the service noted that eight of those had occurred since April 2019. The council said ‘it would not be providing the names’, and cited the ‘perceived risk of potential arsonists targeting schools without sprinklers’, claiming that the ‘public interest in naming the schools is outweighed by the public interest in refusing to do so’.

The LDRS called the request in for an internal review, meaning it will be reconsidered by the council, which will ‘look at whether procedure was followed correctly’. DCC’s director of legal services Simon Hobbs wrote: ‘Disclosure of this information would be likely to endanger the safety of individuals as it may lead to specific schools being targeted by those who may contemplate attacks on public buildings, therefore, I consider the exemption to be engaged.

‘Where sprinklers are installed in schools the primary purpose is to limit fire damage to school property when the building is empty, outside of school hours. During the school day fire alarm and evacuation procedures are in place in all schools to ensure pupils and staff evacuate the building quickly and safely.

‘However, any person called upon to attend a fire out of school hours or who is in the immediate vicinity could be placed at risk if information regarding sprinklers is made public and subsequently used to target school buildings outside of school hours. As this is a qualified exemption I have also considered the public interest test to determine whether in all the circumstances the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

‘There is a public interest in information relating to safety being released to promote accountability and transparency. However, the disclosure of the information relating to schools without sprinklers would potentially be used by individuals or groups who may target vulnerable buildings, putting individuals at risk of harm.

‘I have balanced the arguments in favour of disclosing and withholding the information requested, however, the health and safety of individuals is the primary concern. The public interest is weighted in favour of maintaining the exemption.’

Earlier this week, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) called for all schools to have sprinklers fitted in the aftermath of the two Derbyshire fires. Former chief fire officer Terry McDermott commented: ‘As we know, sprinklers are pretty much 100 per cent effective when installed in the room where a fire starts.

‘Sprinklers are expected to feature in almost all new schools but they do not and loopholes and cost-cutting are the reason. The regulations are being reviewed at the moment and the answer must be sprinklers in all new schools. The rate sprinklers are installed in new schools has dropped from 70 per cent of schools to about eight per cent. The cost is not always measured in pounds – it’s time for change.’

DCC leader Barry Lewis responded: ‘Our policy at Derbyshire County Council is that all new-build schools have sprinklers fitted. All significant extensions to existing too – and refurbs have them retro-fitted wherever possible. We fully support this approach – the human cost and heartbreak, as well as monetary cost, make it essential.’

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that a consultation on changes to fire safety design in schools was ‘to be launched shortly’, and that under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 ‘the responsible person has to carry out and review regularly a fire risk assessment of the building and put in place adequate and appropriate fire precautions to reduce the risk to life in the event of a fire to as low as reasonably practicable’.

They added: ‘The safety of pupils and staff in schools remains our highest priority and all schools are required to have an up-to-date fire risk assessment and to conduct regular fire drills. All new school buildings must be signed-off by an inspector to certify that they meet the requirements of building regulations, where sprinklers are considered necessary to protect pupils and staff, they must be installed.

‘We are working closely with [DCC] and St Ralph Sherwin Catholic Multi-Academy Trust to help support the schools and their pupils.’

Last month, insurer Zurich released findings of a study into English school fires, which found that English schools were ‘twice as likely’ to suffer fires than other buildings. Zurich’s findings led it to launch a parliamentary petition urging MPs to ‘change the law on sprinklers in schools’.