A recent study from Zurich Municipal revealed 480 primary and secondary schools endured fires in 2019, a staggering 40 incidents every month. As a result, almost 20,000 school children have had their education impacted or have been displaced from their usual school building over the same period. Only 2% (seven) of the schools had sprinkler protection in place.
Fires are also traumatic events, which can have an immediate and longer-term impact to the mental well-being of pupils, staff and parents.1,2 How do we assess the emotional impacts when the cost/benefit of the building fire-safety package is being considered?
It has long been evidenced how successful sprinkler systems in buildings are at controlling fires. Evidence from buildings protected by sprinkler systems demonstrated a success rate of 96% of fires when the sprinkler system operated.3 The main cause of failure, in two-thirds of cases, involved the sprinkler system being isolated or turned off.
In Zurich’s experience, in excess of 90% of fires in sprinkler-protected buildings are controlled by just one to five sprinkler heads operating. For a school building that represents between 12m2 to 60m2 of direct fire damage. In most cases therefore, the fire will be contained to the room of origin.
With such strong evidence for the success rate of sprinklers in buildings, Zurich in the UK has been running a campaign with the goal of increasing awareness of the benefits of installing sprinkler systems in new schools in England. The situation is different in Wales and Scotland, which have recognised the wider benefits that sprinklers provide and require new school buildings to be installed with sprinkler systems.
Unfortunately, we continue to see a number of myths4 around sprinkler systems put forward. In part this is perhaps due to the film and TV world continuing to tarnish the reputation of sprinklers by completely misrepresenting the way sprinkler systems operate.
School fire loss history
The debate around installing sprinkler systems in schools is not a new one.5
Historically we have a legacy of buildings from the 1950s to 1970s in particular that have lightweight and combustible construction. These buildings lack sprinkler protection. These system-built schools are referred to under the many building consortia groups that were constructed then such as CLASP. These buildings continue to remain vulnerable to fire, and in many cases a total loss of the building occurs.6,7
Data analysis by Zurich, a leading insurer of schools in the UK, shows that in 2019 over 15,000m² of classroom space was damaged during blazes last year across 271 primary and 209 secondary schools. Only 2% (seven) of the schools had sprinkler protection in place. According to official figures, only 15% of all new schools built and open in the UK since 2011 have been fitted with sprinklers. Whilst sprinklers are compulsory in all new or major refurbished school buildings in Scotland and Wales, this is not the case in England.
Firefighters have been called to nearly 2,000 school blazes in England alone in the last three years. Malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, arson and kitchen blazes are among the leading causes of school fires. Larger fires in schools cost on average £2.8 million to repair and in some cases over £20 million.
Cause of school fires
Arson and deliberate fires remain major causes of school fires with a possible increase in the number of claims noted, although whether this is part of a longer-term issue is not yet known.8 As we know, fire can be indiscriminate in terms of how it starts, spreads and the extent of damage it can cause. The added risk of fires being started deliberately, either internally or externally, during school hours, or when empty, present a real risk to the continued provision of education if not suitably mitigated against.
Hot-work fires continue to account for around 15% of all fires in non-domestic buildings. In school buildings, roofing involving hot work continues to be a major cause of school fires.9 If hot roofing work cannot be avoided then following the Safe2Torch guidelines, which have been produced by the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC) is critical: https://www.nfrc.co.uk/safe2torch
The Safe2Torch guidelines require lower-risk methods, e.g. handheld electric hot-air guns to be used in higher-risk areas. Zurich have produced this video in conjunction with the NFRC on hot-work fires: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj3F6KidPXI
Other causes of fire are similar to many other occupancies and include kitchen fires, fixed electrical wiring fires, faulty appliance fires and photovoltaic panel fires to name a few.
With regards to photovoltaic panel fires the Building Regulations do not currently include the impact of adding photovoltaic (PV) panels to the roof. We therefore see PV panels being added above combustible linings and insulation materials.
To protect against fire and water damage from firefighting activities, Zurich advises that a non-combustible barrier is installed below the PV panels or just below the rubber membrane lining. Example options include concrete pavers, ballast or a 30-minute fire rated (integrity) material that also has a BS EN 13501 A1/A2 rating.
Impact of school fires
Whilst the initial financial impact of a fire loss can and is largely insured against, the additional impacts are often significantly underestimated, both in financial and societal, community and human impact terms. Following even relatively modest fire losses, significant portions of school accommodation can be out of action for some time. In the event of large-scale fire losses, entire school provision needs to be provided in alternative accommodation, with this often being an off-site location.
Community impact is something that is often overlooked until after the event, be that the impact on individual pupils, their welfare, attainment and the sense of stability that schools provide. Additional impact on the disruption to teaching and learning, often with significant resources being lost following a fire, are again aspects that are overlooked.
The future of fire safety in sustainability
In June 2020, Boris Johnson pledged £1bn10 to fund a decade-long school rebuilding and repair programme and a further ‘£560m fast-tracked funding’ in early August. Based on large fires alone, Zurich estimates that the repair for school fires could hit £320 million over 10 years – a significant portion of the government’s slated investment. Zurich wants the government to ring-fence some of its promised investment to improve the resilience of schools at high risk of fire.
For new buildings we have seen a trend towards modular construction, often involving lightweight and combustible materials. Can we achieve the dual goals of a fire-safety and resilient building with green credentials? The simple answer is yes – install a sprinkler system.
For many schools the funds will be either used for refurbishments or extensions. Refurbishments often bring additional fire load in the form of combustible cladding and insulation materials due to the need to improve insulation performance. We therefore see many new and refurbished buildings with combustible cladding and insulation, e.g. polystyrene insulated render systems, high-pressure laminate panels and timber cladding, all of which present significant and unnecessary fire risk.
Outdoor learning areas and canopies add to this fire load and also add a source of fuel to would-be arsonists. Outdoor areas under canopies can also be easily protected by correctly designed sprinkler systems. Good management of all external combustible materials is always advised, however, given the increased arson risk schools face.
In the UK, the British harmonised standard BS EN 12845:2015 is supplemented by a specific Technical Bulletin 221, which specifically deals with schools. This makes some modifications to BS EN 12845 such as changing the recommended hazard occupancy from Light Hazard to Ordinary Hazard group 1.
In England, school-building fire safety is set out in a document called BB100 (Building Bulletin 100). The current wording of Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) states that there is ‘an expectation that sprinklers will be installed’ in new schools. However, the current arrangement for the consideration of sprinklers is severely flawed in that it is focused on a sprinkler risk assessment being carried out to determine the need for sprinkler provision. For this approach to be effective, there needs to be robust execution of any risk assessment.
There are wider policy implications following Covid regarding the green recovery and how we can better build in fire safety and resilience. The Grenfell tragedy and the subsequent Dame Judith Hackitt report12 highlighted the need for greater emphasis on fire safety throughout the construction journey, the ‘golden thread’ as it is now known.
Disruption has become the norm of late, but we’ve seen a positive response and we have a renewed optimism for 2021 and beyond.
For more information, go to www.zurich.co.uk
- https://www.acamh.org/blog/grenfell-tower-fire/ #