Fires in schools twice as likely as in other buildings

Image: Dreamstime/Pakorn Kumruen

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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  1. What this article shows, is that you can make a case for anything by selective use of statistics. It does not make a case for sprinklers in schools; that would require something rather more robust. Risk to life is very low, not least because most fires occur out of school hours. And there are not that many fires, when you consider the size (c1000 – 10,000m2+) of a unit, and the state of repair I had to deal with 1973-2015 in UK schools (never enough money, always too many jobs to do).

    The very idea today, of installing yet more complex equipment, to cover for risks that can be better dealt with by proper maintenance, in buildings that are patently not fit for the purpose now demanded of them, looks like one government would be eager to buy into. But not any sane person with a budget to manage.

  2. I see many of this type of report from insurers, while the underlying message is sound and morally correct this is essentially driven by insurers wanting to control their own exposure to risk i.e. avoidance of claims.
    Possibly if they included information regarding how adopting better measures would reduce the premiums and by what average amount, it would help schools secure the required funding.
    What we’ve ended up with is another sensationalist report dressed up as safety from a business purely trying to protect their own bottom line.

  3. In doing FRA in schools in Yorkshire. The common theme is fire doors. The current legislation will not allow an old door to be a fire door. Fire doors generally need replacing on common areas but school repair budgets will not allow

  4. Insurance company recommends sprinklers in schools!
    It’s great that this subject is being discussed but disappointing that it has to be, because this has been covered before, many years ago.
    Back in 2007 the report ‘The Impact of School Fires; ‘A Study of The Wider Economic and Social Impacts on Schools and The Local Community’ was published by the LGA educational research programme –
    Zurich are quoted in the report raising similar issues, but did anyone listen?
    The government certainly didn’t, they don’t even listen to their own advice, which is quoted at the end of the report. Advice going back even further to 2004, that all new buildings such as schools have sprinklers fitted.
    The report says;
    ‘Finally, the evidence reviewed in the literature suggests that, while there are some complexities in considering installing sprinklers in existing buildings, the advantages of doing so in new buildings is more clear. In Counting the Cost, LGA quote a House of Commons Select Committee Report that stated (LGA, 2004): … we strongly recommend in this year’s revision of the Building Regulations, ministers introduce a requirement for sprinklers to be fitted to all new build properties of this type (including schools) as this would have more impact on public fire fighting safety than any other proposal in the White Paper’
    Building Bulletin 100 was written to support this, but sections of BB100 have been interpreted to ‘risk assess out’ the need for sprinklers by designers, the review of BB100, first published in 2007, is long overdue, but hopefully when it is completed, it will have listened to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).
    The NFCC responded to a call for evidence which closed in May 2019, making a strong case for sprinklers in schools, and getting rid of the risk assessment tool.
    When will this review be completed and the ‘new’ BB100 published?
    I believe the government places more importance on the cost of the build, than the long term protection of a building, so don’t place the burden* on the builder from the outset, so will never fully sign up to mandatory requirement of sprinklers in schools, not unless there is a tragic incident, which we don’t want to happen.
    The short-sighted funding arrangements for educational facilities do not promote investment at design and build stage, so any encouragement to include sprinklers because of property protection, small fire, limited fire damage, business continuity, insurance premium reductions, do not bear any influence at this stage, because the builders do not get the benefits.
    *a burden of between 1%-5% of the cost of the build, depending on who you listen to and design criteria. For schools a quote from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA – now NFCC) ‘Business Case for Sprinklers’ report in 2014 quoted approx. £10-15/m2,the%20total%20cost%20of%20construction.

    So the school managers are left with a building that will not do well in a fire and then have to deal with all the consequences as described in the report of 2007.
    Insurance companies have an important role in making these improvements happen.
    If legislation doesn’t achieve it, insurance companies can influence direction by requiring sprinklers to protect property.
    Just saying,
    Paul Bray

  5. No Sprinklers??

  6. Recently undertook a Fire Risk Assessment of a primary school when it was closed. Their were contractors installing fire doors in the school at the time of the audit. One problem noted was that they had removed all the old doors before installing the new doors, this of course left the school without any fire compartmentation.
    None so blind you might say.

  7. So from the comments above, here are the issues as I see them:-

    1. No budgetary consideration at build – other priorities take precedence.
    2. Expensive ongoing maintenance of sprinklers, if installed.
    3. Difficult and expensive to retro-fit sprinklers.
    4. Fire doors can’t be implemented where required.
    5. Most catastrophic school fires occur out of hours.
    6. Insurers are keen to lower their risk.

    Here are a few other issues that contribute to this:-

    1. Numerous UK county councils, self-insure and so are prepared to cover the cost of rebuilding a school versus the cost of implementing sprinklers in every school.
    2. Nearly all Fire & Rescue Services will not attend automated call outs as 98% of these are false alarms, wasting an already overstretched resource.
    3. Many school fires are as a result of arson and happen in outdoor areas such as bin areas, where there would be no detection and suppression equipment.

    We have developed the next generation in fire detection and reporting called Fire Sentinels, which are wireless, IoT, microprocessor-driven heat and smoke detectors.

    Fire Sentinel sensors simply replace existing smoke alarms and will behave like a smoke alarm during the day detecting and alarming locally, however out of hours, they will contact the Fire and Rescue Service immediately and stream real-time temperature and smoke density data, so Fire & Rescue can be confident that they are going to attend a fire.

    Rapid detection, reporting and action will result in smaller fires, being dealt with more quickly, causing less damage and probably less damage than that caused by the water from a sprinkler system.

    All this for a fraction of the cost of a sprinkler system.

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