Derby school fire

GAVIN TOMLINSON, chief fire officer at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS), made the call after two recent school fires destroyed the buildings, and after another was destroyed in May.

Earlier this month, Ravensdale Infant and Nursery School and St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy were destroyed in fires, while Harrington Junior School was destroyed in May, and Derbyshire County Council (DCC) ‘refused to name’ other schools in the county that have no sprinklers fitted. The fires ‘displac[ed]hundreds of pupils and result[ed] in millions of pounds of rebuild costs’.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) submitted a freedom of information request to DCC asking it to name schools without sprinklers in May, and DCC had a legal duty to respond within 20 working days but chose to take ‘nearly triple that time’, or 58 days, to respond, after the two recent fires. The fire at Ravensdale was ‘ruled as arson’, while the fire at Harrington was ‘accidental and caused by county council staff carrying out refurbishments’.

The cause of the fire at St Mary’s having ‘not yet been disclosed’, and 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, 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’.

Last week, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) called for all schools to have sprinklers fitted in the aftermath of the two Derbyshire fires, and Derby Telegraph reported on an interview with Mr Tomlinson, who commented: ‘There is frustration that we are still having this conversation. Hopefully this is the turning point we need, after the recent fires in Derbyshire. The evidence is there, really. The cost benefits are there too.

‘Even if you estimated at £50,000 to put them in at a design stage with a new school, a rebuild school is in the seven figures easily, so the investment is insignificant in the scheme of things, to make sure that school is there for 40-plus years. This has just disrupted probably around 900 kids for the foreseeable future now, it is something that easily could have been prevented if people made the changes that need making.

‘I just don’t think it is high priority and I think it needs to be. I know there are other agencies and services which have things that they want to see as high priority but we have seen the evidence this year now, three times, that a small investment can save a large capital build. The three schools between them will run over £10m at a conservative guess. At what point do we lose some more (schools) before they (the government) make it a legal requirement to put sprinklers in?

‘Then there is the disruption and they’ve got to have the building work done and it takes years to get back to where they were – all for the sake of a little investment in sprinklers. I had two firefighters injured at the fire in Long Eaton trying to tackle the fire and sprinklers also afford the protection for firefighters as well.’

He added that the two recent fires ‘were too far developed’ before crews arrived, noting: ‘We were never going to be able to save any of them but sprinklers would’ve probably extinguished the fires or certainly held them back before we got there. They wouldn’t have needed two new schools if they had had sprinklers. We know they were deliberately set, they still would have been contained.’

In an ‘ideal world’ he would like all schools to be retrofitted, but understood cost restrictions and disruption, stating: ‘If you are not investing in a refurbishment or a rebuild it is probably an expense that most local authorities can’t afford. Now is the time to start investing. We certainly don’t want to be having this same conversation in 10 years' time when one or two of them have suffered the effects of a fire.

‘My frustration is when schools are rebuilt again after a fire and then still do not put sprinklers in, they are not learning the lessons. I am trying to get [DCC leader] Barry Lewis and [city council leader] Chris Poulter to commit to putting sprinklers in new schools and if they are carrying out refurbishments to make sure those have sprinklers, too. I certainly know that there are new schools which do have sprinklers but I would like that firm commitment from the leadership.

‘It’s the least they can do, it is not like we are building one every week. They are few and far between but the impact of losing them is massive. I know money is tight but the difference in price between a new build school with sprinklers and without sprinklers is insignificant. It is a return on investment. To not put them in is a false economy.’

The news outlet found that the average cost of retrofitting a medium sized school with sprinklers was £83,500 with a £1,000 annual maintenance fee, while the average for a new build was 5% of the overall cost, but insurance premiums ‘could be reduced by up to 65%’ if ‘all or almost all’ schools in a had sprinklers. The average cost of retrofitting a primary school for up to 150 pupils was £65,000, and for a larger new public building 1.5% to 1.9% of the overall build cost.

Taking DCC’s 287 schools into account, 260 of which are primaries, and using that latter average, the news outlet surmised it would cost DCC £16.9m to install sprinklers in all 260 primaries, working out – based on the cost of its newest school, with sprinklers, of £5.3m – that installing sprinklers in all primaries ‘would be the equivalent of around three new schools’, if none of the 260 had sprinklers.

For the city council meanwhile, it found that as one new school is costing £7m with sprinklers, and that council is overseeing 40 primary schools, ‘it would cost around a third of one new school’, or £2.6m, to fit sprinklers in all city primary schools ‘if none of them have them’. Mr Tomlinson was asked if there was evidence that arsonists target schools without sprinklers, and replied: ‘Not that they don’t have sprinklers, no.

‘Certainly they target schools, yes, they are twice as likely to suffer from a fire than any other building. It may be that someone has a vendetta, I don’t know what motivates people to do things like this. I don’t know what the motivation was behind the two recent fires in Derby but I very much doubt they will have been checking to see if there were sprinklers or anything like that in there. The other one at Long Eaton was accidental.

‘Sadly it is the financial side which is why they are not fitted. There is no other argument for not fitting sprinklers in a new building like a school. It protects the building, it protects the future, it costs little in the scheme of things but those additional costs are the main reason that they aren’t in there. It is so wrong.

‘It is just frustrating that it is taking so long. It takes something like this, the loss of several schools, to focus people’s attention and next week it’ll be almost forgotten, but we’ll keep chipping away. But until the next time when a school burns down in the country, and there will be one, I guarantee that, it’ll be off the table until that happens again.

‘We know the fires happen and have always happened, over the past 30 years in Derbyshire we are having major school fires, we know it will continue to happen and we have got to do something to reduce the damage and prevent the schools being lost. The benefits hugely outweigh the financial cost. We’ve got to change.’

The Department for Education had not responded to a request for comment, while DCC cabinet member for young people Alex Dale commented: ‘Our policy is that all permanent new school buildings, significant extensions or major refurbishments are fitted with sprinklers which applies to all the schools we’ve recently built. Like [DFRS’] chief fire officer, we want to see the installation of sprinkler systems set out in fire safety legislation, backed by the finances to fund it.

‘A fire in a school is a devastating event for everyone concerned, the students, staff and the local community, and we need to do all we can to protect our buildings. We do currently fit sprinklers into our new school buildings but we are calling on the government to introduce legislation to make sure this takes place across the country.

‘We’re also calling on the government to provide additional funding to fit sprinklers. 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, although they would activate any time day or night. 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.

‘Wherever possible when we undertake a significant refurbishment we look to retro fit sprinklers, so long as this is possible to do as you need sufficient roof space for the pipework and a suitable water system. We will join with others, including [DFRS], to do what we can to support a change in legislation so we can prevent as many school fires as possible.’

A city council spokesperson added: ‘We’re aware of the chief fire officer’s campaign and we’ve met with him to discuss how we can help. It’s absolutely right that this legislation is looked at and we support his campaign for the government to review this urgently. In the meantime, we will continue to work within the current rules and guidelines. There is now an expectation for all new schools to have sprinkler systems and this is the case for the new Castleward school being built in Derby.’

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’.