THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has called for all schools to have sprinklers fitted in the aftermath of two schools being lost to fire in Derbyshire recently.

In a press release, the NFCC stated that it has ‘once again called for all schools to have sprinklers fitted’, after the ‘devastating loss’ of two schools in Derbyshire last weekend. It was reported that neither school had sprinklers installed, which ‘could have reduced the damage suffered substantially’, and the NFCC noted that it has been calling for sprinklers to be installed in schools ‘for a number of years’.

With around 1,500 fires in UK schools every year, this ‘disrupts the education of approximately 90,000 students’, and the NFCC pointed out that school closures also have a ‘large social and economic impact on local communities’, something that ‘could be reduced by the fitting of sprinklers’.

Figures from the Association of British Insurers revealed that the most expensive school fires can cost up to £2.8m to ‘address’, and over the course of a four year period, an average of 24 large loss fires occurred annually, costing £67.2m. The NFCC said that its chair Roy Wilsher has now urged the government to ‘ensure legislation in England is the same as in Scotland and Wales’, where it is ‘mandatory for sprinkler systems to be fitted in all new and refurbished’ schools.

In the NFCC’s response to the technical review of Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools, it highlighted that the rate of schools being fitted with sprinklers ‘may have fallen’ from 70% to 15% of new builds, and stated that schools ‘are important community assets which need to be protected’, emphasising the ‘importance of ensuring fire safety remains a key priority’ during the COVID-19 pandemic and making it part of planning, along with revisiting escape routes and fire drills.

Mr Wilsher stated: ‘England is lagging behind Scotland and Wales when it comes to introducing legislation to fit sprinklers in schools. NFCC believes all new schools – and those undergoing refurbishment – should have automatic fire suppression systems fitted. We have a responsibility to ensure buildings are safer; sprinklers in schools is clearly a move in the right direction.

‘Children across the UK have had their education severely disrupted this year due to the pandemic; a fire in a school will only make this worse, putting additional pressure on the education service and parents.’

Gavin Tomlinson, NFCC lead for sprinklers and chief fire officer for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, added: ‘It is devastating to see the impact of these two fires over the weekend. These fires are resource intensive and to see the damage which could have been reduced substantially by sprinklers is heart-breaking. The current guidance allows a number of interpretations to the fitting of sprinklers which must be rectified.

‘There are a number of loopholes regarding the fitting of sprinklers which should be looked at, which allows designers to take alternative approaches to fire safety. This guidance needs to be re-examined and changes made to protect our schools.’

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. Data on all English schools, including personal inspections of over 1,000 primary and secondary schools, revealed that there was a ‘perfect storm’ of risky buildings and poor fire detection and prevention measures, with 26,866 analysed and the average fire risk ‘almost double’ that of non residential buildings.

Despite a ‘greater risk’ of fire, 66% lack ‘adequate fixed fire protection measures’ such as sprinklers, while 24% were rated ‘poor’ for fire detection’. 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 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, Zurich’s model giving schools a fire risk score of 0.58 compared to non residential buildings’ 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 in the last six years analysed and a fire risk score produced.

Factors consisted of listed status, the presence of cooking equipment and the building’s size, with Zurich adding 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 (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/549558) 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’.

The insurer noted that 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’.