Security Insights

Fire safety in Schools: A growing challenge

Michael Heasman 6 Min Read |
Fire exit sign

In our latest blog, STANLEY Security’s Michael Heasman, UK Fire Product Manager SME, looks at the increasing threat of arson in our schools and the considerable cost in dealing with the damage and potential danger to life. 

Fire safety in Schools: A growing challenge

In our latest blog, STANLEY Security’s Michael Heasman, UK Fire Product Manager SME, looks at the increasing threat of arson in our schools and the considerable cost in dealing with the damage and potential danger to life. 

Fire detection systems are required in schools, but with arson on the increase, schools that are most at risk need to think about preventative measures as well.

In this blog, Michael will cover:

  • The Impact of Fires in Schools – the latest figures
  • The source of fires in schools and the growth of arson
  • The fire detection methods that are most suited to school sites
  • Effective methods to prevent arson, including the use of remote monitoring

The impact of fires in Schools – the latest figures

A new study from Zurich Municipal - a leading public sector insurance provider – has highlighted the increased risk schools face from fire when compared to average properties, whilst simultaneously lacking the equipment and adequate fire protection needed to prevent small fires getting out of hand.

According to this new study, in 2019 480 primary and secondary schools had a fire, which equates to 40 schools a month and represents over 15,000m² of classroom space damaged.  Clearly, fire damage has a direct cost, with larger fires in schools costing on average £2.8 million to repair, but there’s also increased insurance premiums faced by those affected schools.  Furthermore, fires also directly impact children’s education: in 2019, it is estimated that almost 20,000 school children had their education impacted as a result of a fire.

What’s particularly concerning is that out of 1,000 schools Zurich inspected, two-thirds were rated as having ‘poor’ fire protection measures, such as smoke detectors and fire alarms; just 14% were rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

School fires infographic

The source of fires in schools and the growth of arson

Whilst malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, and kitchen blazes are among the leading causes of school fires, arson is sadly the largest single cause of fires in schools and has increased steadily over the years.

The greatest opportunities for arson have been previously identified by the Arson Prevention Bureau as school cloakrooms during the daytime. These are relatively straight forward to protect as part of the school’s fire detection system.  However, out of school hours is a different matter with fires started both inside and outside the building, often in places out of view.  Whilst you may be surprised to hear that up to one-third of fires are started during the school day, that still means the bulk of fires – and mostly the larger ones as their discovery is delayed and therefore they have great opportunity to build – are instigated when the school is closed, no doubt because there is less chance of the perpetrator(s) being disturbed.

School fires infographic

The fire detection methods that are most suited to school sites

Although staff and pupils within schools provide an excellent source of mobile smoke detection using their own senses, they certainly cannot take the place of a reliable fire detection system that operates round the clock, in and out of term time!

Early detection and alarm of the fire are essential in enabling occupants to evacuate quickly and safely. It will enable professional help to be summoned without delay which should reduce the damage to the fabric and contents of the building.

Schools come in many different shapes and sizes, so there isn’t a single type of fire detection system that will be suitable for all.  BS 5839-1:2017, the code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in non-domestic premises is the key British Standard to work to, although BS 9999:2017 (the code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings) also comes in to play.

School fires infographic

These standards contain recommendations for the installation of Fire detection and alarm systems to satisfy one or both principal objectives, namely Life protection and Property protection. It is perfectly acceptable, and very common, for a fire alarm system installed in a building to incorporate a mixture of Categories.  In schools that are partly occupied out of standard school hours, e.g. for evening classes, a Life safety Category L is often more appropriate or for SENCO, primary or middle schools.

Getting the right category of protection is vital and requires expertise, starting with a Fire Risk Assessment

Where schools are at a high risk of arson, automatic fire suppression systems i.e. a sprinkler system, is a good investment for both life and property protection.  Sprinklers are known to be highly effective in controlling a fire while it is still small and certainly buying time before the arrival of the Fire and Rescue Service.  Interestingly, according to the Zurich study, just 2% of the 1000 schools inspected had sprinklers. Whilst sprinklers are compulsory in all new or major refurbished school buildings in Scotland and Wales, this is not the case in England.  According to official figures, only 15% of all new schools built and open in the UK since 2011 have been fitted with sprinklers.

Fire inspector notes on clipboard

Effective methods to help arson - including the use of remote monitoring

Arson is generally opportunistic, so removal of potential fuel sources, rubbish, etc. will reduce the possibility of an ignition occurring in the first place and prevent the fire from being fed.  A tidy school is a safer school!

But for the determined arsonist, that’s not going to be enough.  If you’re serious about trying to prevent arson then you need on-site security.  These are the following measures that need to be considered:

  • Boundary security to deter unauthorised entry onto the site
  • Robust window and door locks, external lighting, monitored CCTV and intruder alarm systems to prevent unauthorised entry into the buildings
  • House combustible materials or rubbish in securely locked stores to reduce the opportunity for an offender to start a fire
  • Suppression systems, automatic fire detection & alarm systems to reduce the scope for potential fire damage and disruption
Young masked girl with yellow backpack

Linking fire detection and alarm systems to an Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) is an important aspect of prevention of fire both in and out of school hours.  The ARC monitors the on-site systems – fire detection, intruder alarm, CCTV etc) – from a remote location using professionally trained operatives 24/7.  They are able to take swift, decisive action is that in calling the emergency services or, if the technology on-site permits, challenging the intruder through two way audio.  As arsonists are mostly opportunistic, this is normally sufficient to send them on their way.  Using an ARC also means that they are able to provide responders with valuable information on the location, nature and state of the fire alarm.

Learn more about fire detection and prevention methods