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June 7, 2021

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Education

“The loss of a school can be avoided with a sprinkler system” – Jonathan O’Neill responds to new proposals for schools

The Fire Protection Association’s (FPA) Jonathan O’Neill MBE offers his thoughts on the Department for Education’s recently published proposals regarding fire safety in schools.

JonathanONeill-FPA-20

Jonathan O Neill MBE, FPA

It goes without saying that if a school is destroyed by fire, the legacy can be significant. According to Zurich Municipal, schools in England are nearly twice as likely to suffer a blaze as other types of commercial buildings and large fires in schools cost on average £2.8 million to repair, and in some cases more than £20 million.

It appears obvious to me that finding a temporary location for a large school with hundreds of students and teachers is never going to be straightforward and will almost inevitably result in significant logistical challenges in transporting pupils to another site, which in turn will lead to an elongated interruption to learning. Stress levels for parents, teachers and pupils who may have lost coursework or be facing exams, alongside the loss of amenity to local communities are also important factors to consider, even if they are more difficult to quantify or measure.

If all this is true, what on earth is the logic behind the Department for Education’s potentially disastrous proposals which have now been published for comment regarding the fire safety guidance covering schools?

Some will remember the tussle that Jim (now Lord) Knight had when he was Schools Minister in trying to introduce a requirement for all new and refurbished schools to have sprinklers. A sensible proposal, widely adopted throughout the civilised world to protect the lives and the uninterrupted education of our children. As with most things in fire safety – it is not rocket science; most support the provision, most see it as simple common sense – except the civil servants at the Department for Education. It is widely known that Jim experienced fierce opposition from officials and it is a great credit to him that only a very slightly watered-down provision was eventually published.

From then we have seen several attempts (by the same officials) to reverse this decision. The current draft will see the mandatory installation of sprinklers disappear from all but a few special needs schools and school buildings over 11m – of which the Department have been unable to estimate how many will be built in the next five years. I suspect that it is actually very few or none.

The Department for Education’s justification seems to emanate from the recent loss history of the relatively small number of schools who have opted out of the commercial insurance market and into the government’s own risk protection scheme which has only a limited amount of data available. Three recent fires in Derbyshire resulting in combined losses in the region of £30 million, and not in the government scheme, would suggest that the figures they are using are simply wrong!

The proposals also extend the allowable compartmentation size, despite the fact that more schools are now being constructed using modern methods with more combustible materials. Where we have seen this trend in hotels and care homes, we have correspondingly seen such severe and rapid-fire spread that the fire and rescue service have no real chance of stopping the fire. Should such a fire take hold in an unsprinklered school, we would be lucky if everyone were able to escape safely; the building would be destroyed.

I am sure that I am not alone in believing that we really cannot afford any more disruption to our children’s education, particularly now. The loss of a school can be avoided with a sprinkler system, let us not throw away the protection we currently have. Respond to the consultation and let us hope the Department see sense and have a change of heart.

One of the key aims of the FPA’s Know Your Building campaign is for sprinkler systems to be a regulatory requirement for commercial buildings such as care homes, schools, hospitals and healthcare premises.

Jonathan O’Neill MBE is set to speak at an exclusive FIREX Connect webinar on 24th June on the subject of ‘Making Buildings Safer’. Secure your place for free in the link below. This article was first published on the Fire Protection Association’s (FPA) website.

Connect with the fire safety community online 1-30 June

Connect 2021 is your first major opportunity to come together with the fire safety community online from 1-30 June!

FIREX Connect, the month-long online event, will give attendees the opportunity to make up for lost time by browsing fire safety solutions, connecting with suppliers and getting up-to-date on the latest legislation from the comfort of your home.

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