A major insurer has called for the installation of sprinklers in schools after new research revealed that schools in England are nearly twice as likely to suffer a fire as other types of commercial building.
Zurich Municipal analysed the fire risks posed by 26,866 primary and secondary schools in England. It found the average school posed a fire risk 1.7 times greater than non-residential buildings (with a fire risk score of 0.58 and 0.33 respectively).
When compared to 2.9m non-household properties, schools were also three times more likely to fall into the “high” fire risk category (58% vs 20%), as defined by the study.
Data scientists analysed 33,000 fires from the last six years to identify factors that increase the likelihood of a blaze from which they produced a fire risk score. These factors include listed status, presence of cooking equipment and size of the building itself.
The study also found that many schools lack the equipment needed to prevent small fires becoming major disasters. Of more than 1,000 school inspections carried out by Zurich, 66% were rated as having ‘poor’ fixed fire protection systems, such as sprinklers, which are proven to significantly reduce the damage caused by fire. Just 14% were rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. A further quarter (24%) were judged ‘poor’ for fire detection measures, such as smoke detectors and fire alarms.
Firefighters have been called to nearly 2,000 school blazes in the last three years, with malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, arson and kitchen blazes among the leading causes of school fires.
Larger fires in schools cost on average £2.8m to repair and in some cases over £20m.
Bigger and older schools, including those with a canteen, and secondary schools – which have more complex and dangerous equipment – were identified as particularly at risk.
Zurich Municipal said it wanted some of the £1.5bn pledged by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fund a decade-long school rebuilding and repair programme to be ring-fenced and reinvested to improve the resilience of schools at high risk of fire. The insurer estimates that the repair for school fires could hit £320m over 10 years.
Tilden Watson, Zurich Municipal’s head of education, said: “An alarming number of school buildings pose a high fire risk – yet many are poorly protected against a potential blaze. Unless ministers bring England into line with other parts of the UK, where sprinklers are mandatory, large fires will continue to blight schools. This is harming children’s education and putting lives at risk.
“Burnt out schools and classrooms cause major disruption to children’s education, with repairs leading to months or even years of upheaval. They also result in the loss of spaces which local communities rely on out of school hours. As well as protecting pupils, sprinklers drastically reduce the extent of damage when there is a blaze, often confining the fire to a single room. This gets children back into schools and classrooms quicker as well as saving taxpayers’ money.
“Countless young people have already had their schooling upended by the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot allow school fires to further disrupt young people’s education, and jeopardise their futures.”
Nick Coombe, protection vice chair and Building Safety Programme lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council, said: “The case for sprinklers is compelling. Of almost 1,000 fires over five years in buildings where sprinklers were fitted, our research found they controlled or extinguished blazes in 99% of cases. We want to see a greater inclusion of Automatic Fire Suppression Systems (AFSS), including sprinklers, across the built environment.”
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