A report from insurer Zurich Municipal – which insures ‘about half’ of all UK schools and universities – noted that two thirds of schools ‘are not properly prepared’ for a fire.
The Guardian reported on the Zurich investigation and report, which came after it undertook 1,000 site inspection over the last two years. The insurer has written to the government and called for ‘urgent action to improve’ fire protection on school premises, with 67% rated as having ‘poor’ fire protection systems and only 5% awarded an ‘excellent’ rating – conversely, 29% of Scottish schools had an ‘excellent’ rating.
In turn, it called for sprinklers to be made mandatory, as in Scotland systems are ‘legally required in all new and major refurbished schools’, while in England they are not mandatory in all schools ‘and fewer than one in six’ new schools have been built with systems installed. Zurich’s inspectors not only considered sprinklers but also building combustibility and modern methods of construction, fire detection systems and smoking controls on their visits.
It stated that there are ‘more than 1,000’ fires in school premises every year, which cost an average of £2.8m for larger incidents and closing sites ‘not just for pupils but also the wider community’ in out of school hours. This comes while the government has ‘yet to report back’ on its own consultation undertaken on fire safety design in schools, which it launched in March 2019.
Tilden Watson, head of education at Zurich, stated: ‘A change in government legislation to make sprinklers in schools mandatory not only protects children while they are in school, it often contains the fire to the room it starts in when it happens out of school hours. Not only does this minimise the level of damage caused, it also negates the aftermath, which often leads to months or even years of disruption for children’s education while the school is repaired.’
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Andy Dark, assistant general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, added: ‘We’ve made it clear in the past that newly built schools and other high-risk buildings should have sprinkler systems and we fully support Zurich Municipal’s call on the government to change the law to make them mandatory. Ideally, sprinklers would be fitted in all schools of whatever age and size. Sprinklers can assist in limiting the spread of fire, the damage it will cause and giving occupants additional time to escape, as well as reducing the risks faced by firefighters attending the incident.’
The Department for Education responded: ‘Schools are fundamentally safe places, designed to be evacuated as quickly as possible in the event of a fire. All schools are required to have an up-to-date fire risk assessment and to conduct regular fire drills – and 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, they must be installed.’
Earlier this year, and having made similar calls in 2017, the National Fire Chiefs Council ‘once again urged’ the government to consider fitting sprinklers in new build schools and schools undergoing refurbishment, as part of its response to the call for evidence on the technical review of Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools (BB100).
Additionally, in August London Brigade revealed that all 57 of the city’s schools that have suffered fires this year had no sprinklers fitted, and added that it had ‘long been calling’ for mandatory sprinkler installations in all new school builds, as well as for all schools to be retrofitted with sprinklers ‘during major refurbishment’.
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