During the past year we have seen major fires in schools across the UK – all without sprinklers that could have minimised those incidents. Fewer than one in six new schools have been built with a sprinkler system installed. It is time we changed that.
Late last year in October, six fire engines and two aerial ladder platforms were called to attend a major blaze at St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy in Darley Abbey, Derby. The fire quickly engulfed the building. Just 48 hours later, there was a second severe fire four miles away at Ravensdale Infant School in Mickleover, which required 12 fire engines from the Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service. Neither building had sprinklers fitted.
The children from both schools are currently learning in temporary accommodation.
Currently, sprinklers are only mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and centrally funded schools in Wales, but not in England and Northern Ireland.
According to a 2019 study by Zurich Municipal, education insurer for half of the schools and universities in the UK, two-thirds of schools have ‘poor’ fire protection and are not properly prepared for a potential damaging fire. It also found that schools in England are ‘twice as likely’ to suffer fires than other school buildings.
The insurer has stated that a change to government legislation to make sprinklers mandatory will not only protect children in school, but will also contain a fire to the room it starts when it begins out of school hours.
The government is still considering the response to its call for evidence on Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) which closed in May 2019. The BSA has always highlighted that BB100 sets the right expectations around the protection of schools and the continuity of education. It sets an expectation that the school should be fully functional within 24 hours of a fire, apart from the room where the fire occurred.
The BSA wants the government to maintain these objectives and enhance the “sprinkler expectation” in the revised BB100 so that fewer schools are damaged and destroyed by fire.
Better still, the government should make property protection a consideration for the fire safety Building Regulations to protect all buildings of significant social and/or economic value from fire.
A sprinkler system would serve to protect the occupants and the building, allowing students to return to normality quicker and with less disruption to teachers’ already hectic schedules during this pandemic.
Fires in schools must be avoided. How many more fires need to occur before sprinkler installation becomes a prerequisite of school design and safety?
Iain Cox is chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance