Last Updated on 7 May 2020.
If you’re a Principal, Site or Business Manager, you’ll understand the importance of fire safety and security in protecting your nursery, school or college.
A lot of people depend on it, whether it’s for their education or livelihood, so health and safety is a top priority.
As schools are heavily occupied during term time and empty during the holidays, a lot of consideration is needed in protecting those who are there every day, and also protecting the premises when it’s left vacant for long periods of time.
No one wants to think about what might go wrong, but it’s crucial to have the procedures and systems in place in case as emergencies can happen – always prepare!
Here are 12 ways to ensure your school is both safe and legally compliant:
1. Ensure You Have a Suitable and Efficient Fire Alarm
Fire alarms come in a range of types; you might hear specialists mention L1/L2/L3/L4/L5 fire alarms, and this is basically referring to the design of the system, i.e. the extent of fire detection according to the premises it is being designed for. For instance, an oil factory will have very different fire safety considerations to a convenience store or a school. Fire alarm systems in the UK should be designed, installed, commissioned and maintained in accordance with British Standards (specifically the BS 5839-1:2017), and both fire brigades and the Government always recommend using a third-party accredited provider for these needs.
Don’t forget the maintenance…
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) dictates that systems are “maintained in an efficient state, are in efficient working order and are in good repair” (Article 17). It is the school’s social and legal responsibility to have a working fire alarm installed in the premises, which is regularly maintained (usually every 6 months) by a competent specialist.
This, as well as all aspects of fire safety, must be implemented and overseen by your school’s ‘Responsible Person’, which is usually the Head teacher, the School Manager or the Chair of the Board of Governors.
2. Fire Safety and Security Equipment
In addition to fire alarms, your school will likely have other fire and security systems and products, such as fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, disabled refuge alarms, intruder alarm systems and CCTV. Keep these maintained periodically by a professional to keep them fault-free and in healthy working order. For instance, keeping your fire alarm maintained is great, but if you don’t maintain your intruder alarm or CCTV as well, and during the school holidays there is a break-in and an arson attack, the fire alarm will activate but the intruder alarm may be faulty due to lack of servicing, and could’ve activated upon the break-in before any severe damage was done.
If you have access control or mechanical fire doors which are linked to the fire alarm, and open/close depending on whether the fire alarm has been activated, then it’s incredibly important to keep these serviced and act immediately upon the identification of any faults.
Remember to log all of your services, faults, the resolution of faults, drills and training in your fire safety log book! (This is typically provided by your maintenance provider.)
3. Consider Monitoring, i.e. Emergency Response
Monitoring is particularly useful overnight and in times when a premises is left vacant. It links up to your fire and/or intruder alarm, and upon activation it calls a designated key holder and/or goes through to the emergency services.
Many schools designate a Site Manager and Business Manager so that they are notified if an alarm is activated, whilst others designate these key holders in addition to the call going through to the fire brigade/police. When you’ve got rooms like dedicated IT suites and chemistry labs, etc. you probably want to be safe than sorry. Remember, an alarm is only helpful if someone’s actually around to hear it!
Top Tip: Check with your insurance as usually they will specify whether they require you to have monitoring or not. Even if they don’t specify, you can still have it installed for peace of mind.
4. Have an Up-to-Date Fire Risk Assessment
Going back to the first point on installing a suitable fire alarm system, it is your Fire Risk Assessment which dictates the type of fire alarm you need, as well as looking at your overall fire safety strategy.
Many people make the big mistake of doing all that they should in terms of regular system servicing, but not having an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment, which is reflective of your premises at the time it was issued.
Others make the mistake of having regular Fire Risk Assessments to prove they’ve done them (as they are a legal document) but then fail to carry out the recommendations noted in the assessment to keep them safe and legal.
Our experts, and the majority of the fire industry, agree that a Fire Risk Assessment should be done when a premises a) changes ownership, b) is set to undergo/has undergone any structural changes or refurbishment, c) there has been an influx of inhabitants within the premises and d) once per year to ensure the assessment is always reflective of the premises in its current state. Some Fire Risk Assessments have an expiry date, so it’s best to make sure yours is up-to-date and in an easily accessible place should your fire and security provider, or a Fire Safety Officer, need to inspect it.
5. Take Care with Devices
Everyone’s got their head in their phones these days. If your school does allow pupils and staff to bring their mobile and any other electronic devices then make sure you follow best practice with PAT tested charging points/sockets across your premises, and impose that no one leaves their device charging unattended.
6. Install Sprinklers
There were 75 school fires in London alone in 2018 and only 1 of them was found to have sprinklers fitted. The year before there were 90 school fires in London with only two schools found to have sprinklers.
“Sprinklers are the only fire safety system that detects a fire, suppresses a fire and can raise the alarm. Sprinklers save lives and protect property,” says Deputy Assistant Commissioner of London Fire Brigade Charlie Pugsley.
Stephanie Peacock MP, who was formerly a teacher, also said: “The ridiculous thing is that we spend far more rebuilding and repairing schools are fires than we would have paid to install sprinklers in the first place.”
We are now moving towards a stricter ruling on the implementation of sprinklers, not just in schools but in apartment buildings, particularly following Grenfell Tower in 2017.
7. Evacuation Routes, Extinguishers and Fire Exits Should Always Be Clear
This goes without saying but you won’t believe how many schools we’ve visited who’ve propped fire doors open with extinguishers!
Ensure wall artwork and displays don’t cover any fire exit signage and that all routes are kept clear, and that everyone knows where their nearest fire exit routes are, plus the fire assembly point.
You will also want to have an evacuation plan which you then execute during fire drills, taking into consideration Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for vulnerable pupils and staff members.
8. Talk About It!
Encouraging communication is the best way to educate. Get the kids, parents, teachers – everyone! –on board to feel a part of their own and each other’s personal safety. The more people talk about it, the more alert they’ll be, and a sense of shared responsibility is always good when it comes to health and safety concerns. Some schools come up with their own mottos or catch phrases, which is a good way to inject a little fun (not to mention making it easy to remember!) into a very serious topic.
9. Fire Safety Training
Another great way to keep your school safe and legal is to carry out professional fire safety training for your staff members. Trainers can teach you, for instance, how to operate fire extinguishers in the event of a fire-related emergency, how to approach a room believed to have a fire, how to respond calmly and efficiently in making the 999 call, and so on. These are skills you hope you never want to use, but skills you want to be able to call upon if the situation ever arises.
You might also want to host fire safety days for the kids, where local fire brigades can organise workshops and visits to raise the awareness of fire safety.
10. Assign Fire Wardens
No two buildings and schools are the same, so rightly or wrongly the RRO does not dictate a specific number of fire wardens per school. The recommended and typical number often depends on the ‘risk’ level of your premises. ‘Low risk’ premises tend to have 1 fire marshal/warden per 50 people or 1 fire marshal per area/floor, whilst ‘normal risk’ properties tend to have 1 per 20 people, and ‘high risk’ sites often have 1 per 15 people. The level of ‘risk’ your school is will usually be defined in your Fire Risk Assessment.
It is also important to consider assigning additional fire wardens in the case of absences. Plus, you’ll not only want teachers as your fire wardens, but a mix of support staff including playground attendants, dinner ladies and cooks, janitors, site managers and administrational staff.
The responsibilities of a fire warden include identifying and removing fire hazards, raising the alarm in the event of a fire (or making sure it has been raised by someone else), checking their designated sections during evacuation to ensure everyone has safely exited the building, assisting those with additional needs, using fire-fighting equipment if it is safe to do so and if they are confident in operating, and liaising with fire fighters upon attendance.
11. Fire Drills
Practice makes perfect. Fire drills are vital as they remind staff and pupils of the sound of fire alarms (this is also a purpose of weekly fire alarm tests, which are different to fire drills – tests are carried out typically by a site manager to ensure the fire alarm will go off when it should, whereas a fire drill tests not the fire alarm, but you and everyone in your building on how you respond in the event of an emergency). They also remind everyone of emergency routes, the assembly point, whilst giving fire wardens the change to practice their duties. Of course, a huge part of it is assessing how everyone responds to the emergency, including how calmly and quickly everyone evacuates, and in doing so, highlighting any areas which are a cause for concern and need further practice.
12. Be Clever with Call Point Covers
Call points are necessary to sound the alarm and notify everyone in the building of a fire, but unfortunately they can be misused and the subject of pranks in schools, leading to many false alarms. To prevent this, many schools like to install covers to add an extra layer of protection and an added obstacle to setting off the alarm; for instance some simply are an extra cover over the glass/plastic, whilst others cover the entire red box of the call point and can even sound a supplementary alarm to say the flap has been opened before the call point is set off and/or damaged.
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