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Knowledge Base » Health and Safety » Fire safety in schools

Fire safety in schools

Every year, approximately 90,000 UK school pupils have their learning disrupted because of a fire. Fire safety in schools is incredibly important, and although no schools are immune to the risks of fire, they can decrease the chances of a fire from occurring by following stringent fire safety regulations.

School fires create significant amounts of stress for school management, staff, and pupils. On top of the physical damage that fires create, they also pose administrative, educational, and financial costs. Therefore, it’s advisable to have key members of staff trained and prepared too.

Out of over 32,000 schools in the UK, only 400 are fitted with sprinkler systems. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has estimated that school fires cost £100 million a year, with arson cited as a growing concern in many cases.

In the years 2004–2007, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that the average cost of fires to schools was £58 million each year. In 2008, this figure increased to £70 million. However, this number has steadily decreased year-on-year ever since.

On average, three school fires a day are reported in the UK. A staggering 75% of these fires are the result of arson attacks.

In this guide, we’ll outline what legislation is in place to protect pupils, teachers, and visitors to your school. Next, we’ll reveal the penalties and potential consequences that could occur if your school fails to follow fire safety legislation.

We’ll move on to outline general fire safety precautions in schools, fire prevention measures, and who should be responsible for carrying out fire safety assessments and making sure that all fire safety equipment is tested and present on your school campus.

Next, we’ll discuss how to review the school fire drill, and what should be included in your school fire safety policy. We’ll finish this guide by discussing different guidance for new school buildings and what to do if a fire breaks out in your school.

What legislation is in place for fire safety in schools?

Before 2006, schools were very rarely considered in UK fire safety legislation. Although there were about 70 pieces of legislation that covered fire safety enforced in the UK, in 2001, a decision was made to simplify this legislation, emphasising the inclusion of schools.

This simplification was achieved with the ‘Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005’. This order came into place on 1st October 2006, and was designed to provide a minimum fire safety standard for the majority of non-domestic premises in the UK.

The order outlines an obligation for all workplaces to designate a Responsible Person (RP) to ensure that the school is prepared to prevent a fire, spot any potential fire risks, and has a fire drill in place, amongst other vital fire safety measures.

The ‘responsible person’ or a fire warden acting on their behalf must carry out specific fire safety duties. These include conducting a fire risk assessment. If there are over five people employed, this risk assessment has to be available in writing.

All schools must adhere to the 2005 Regulatory Reform Order (RRO) to protect staff, pupils, and visitors from the occurrence of, and the potential damages associated with, school fires.

What can happen if fire legislation isn’t followed?

If appropriate school fire safety measures are not put in place, staff, pupils, and visitors could be injured. Buildings could be badly damaged or destroyed, as could the reputation of your school. Education and learning could be affected, especially if parts of the school need to be closed for renovations to areas severely damaged by fire and smoke.

In all UK schools, your local fire and rescue service will attend the school premises and inspect your fire risk assessment and the fire prevention methods that you have in place. If your school is considered unsafe or in breach of the 2005 Regulatory Reform Order, fines, notices, and penalties will be issued depending on the severity of the violation.

If your school does not comply, you could be issued with:

Alterations notice

This is a formal fire safety notice that would be issued if your school has significant safety risks or if the school premises has recently changed purpose.

Enforcement notice

Enforcement notices are more severe and are issued when a school has seriously high safety risks that are not being managed. These notices outline specific details of amendments that must be completed along with a deadline by which these amendments must be fully finished.

Prohibition notice

If it is decided that your school is in such great danger of fire, and that admittance to the premises must be prevented as a safety precaution, your designated responsible person will be served with a prohibition notice. Prohibition notices are effective immediately upon receipt, with strict penalties enforced for non-compliance.

Penalties

Minor offences concerning the fire safety of a UK school can result in penalties of up to £5,000. However, if your school is subject to a significant fire safety breach, unlimited fines can be issued, along with a maximum prison sentence of two years.

Last year there were 316 fire-related fatalities recorded in Great Britain. Although this number was significantly less than recorded deaths in 2018, many fires can be prevented if appropriate precautions are followed.

School caretaker checking fire extinguisher in the school

What are the general fire precautions?

General fire precautions in schools can be divided into three categories. These are passive fire precautions, active fire precautions, and fire safety management.

Passive fire precautions

Passive fire precautions include ‘fire-rated’ doors which are precautions that help to delay the spread of smoke and fire through buildings. They are important because they also protect the structural integrity of buildings, helping them to avoid collapsing as the consequence of a fire.

Passive protection is considered the ‘backbone’ of school fire safety. High-risk areas, such as school kitchen areas, must be separated from the rest of the premises by specialist fire doors. These doors are manufactured from unique materials that provide longer resistance time when exposed to fire.

Standard resistance fire doors can be suitable for long corridors as long as they can restrict the passage of smoke. The protective integrity of these barriers must be maintained, as this can save lives.

Fire doors

Fire doors must be professionally rated, maintained, and installed. All doors must be checked regularly to guarantee that hinges and seals are in good working order. For example, if your fire doors will not close independently, they must be attended to quickly, as they are no longer effective.

The importance of staff training

All staff should be encouraged to maintain a high standard of fire safety and precautions in any areas of the school under their influence or control. It’s the role of the designated responsible person to encourage staff to report damage to safety barriers, signage removal, compromised fire doors, and blocked fire escape areas.

Active fire precautions

Active precautions refer to any systems in place to slow down the spread of a fire or detect smoke throughout your school building.

This includes:

  • Fire extinguishers and any other manual fire suppression equipment.
  • Smoke detectors and any other early warning systems.
  • Automatic fire suppression devices such as sprinklers or water mist systems. These systems can reduce risk and minimise the amount of damage caused by a fire.

Sprinkler systems are the only fire safety apparatus that can both detect and suppress a fire automatically. Although these systems can be hard to retrofit into old school buildings, we strongly recommend considering having them professionally plumbed in and maintained.

In 2019, the London Fire Brigade released a report stating that out of 57 school fires they attended, none of the buildings were fitted with sprinklers. The fire service believes that all schools should be equipped with sprinklers as a standard safety precaution.

School holidays

With arson being one of the leading causes of fires in UK schools, sprinkler systems can help to control and extinguish fires that are deliberately caused during school holiday periods. Fires in empty buildings can smoulder undetected for significant periods, leading to extensive damage.

Fire safety management

Fire safety management provides a link between active and passive fire safety measures.

The Regulatory Reform Order (RRO) requires that all school fire safety management systems include evacuation planning and safety drills.

Your school’s responsible person must:

  • Prepare a school evacuation plan.
  • Appoint fire marshals to help orchestrate the plan.
  • Arrange fire drills to practise all the fire safety procedures in place.

Specific arrangements need to be made to guarantee that all school visitors and pupils leave the premises in a calm and timely manner upon hearing the fire alarm. Additional arrangements must be in place to assist any staff, pupils, or visitors with disabilities.

Everyone has to be directed to designated fire assembly points. These points must be located outside of school premises, clearly marked, and easy to identify by anyone from the school.

Once the fire alarm has been sounded, fire marshals must check the entire school campus to make sure that nobody is left behind.

The responsible person for the school planning the school safety measures

Who should be the responsible person?

The responsible person is your school fire safety officer. This can be one person, or a group consisting of people responsible for different aspects of your school’s fire safety.

In most schools, the headteacher usually assumes the role of the designated ‘responsible person’ for fire safety. The deputies generally take positions as fire wardens.

Both the responsible person and fire wardens must:

  • Take fire precautions to ensure the safety of pupils, employees, visitors, and the school premises.
  • Undertake a risk assessment.
  • Make arrangements for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of the preventative and protective measures.
  • Eliminate or reduce risks from dangerous substances.
  • Ensure that school premises are equipped with firefighting equipment, fire detectors, and smoke alarms.
  • Ensure that extinguishers and any other non-automatic fire safety equipment is accessible, easy to use, and indicated by appropriate signage.
  • Establish appropriate procedures, including safety drills, to be followed in the event of imminent danger from a fire.
  • Make sure that all routes to emergency exits are kept clear from blockages or obstructions at all times.
  • Adopt additional emergency measures regarding dangerous substances.
  • Make sure that all equipment is appropriately maintained, in full working order, and in good repair.
  • Appoint appropriate staff to help out with undertaking protective and preventative measures.
  • Provide training and information to employees.
  • Provide fire safety information to school pupils and visitors.
  • Co-ordinate and co-operate with any other responsible persons throughout the school.

Carrying out a fire risk assessment

A fire risk assessment is a legal requirement as part of fire safety in schools. During this assessment, responsible staff must ensure that all employees and staff understand the school fire drill. All school fire alarms must be checked to be in full working order, and risk levels to staff and pupils need to be assessed, especially if there are vulnerable people in the school community.

Fire risk assessment plans for schools require a minimum of five steps for completion; these include:

Step One

Identify any hazards such as sources of ignition, oxygen, and fuel.

Step Two

Identify any people at risk both inside and outside of school premises. Anyone that is at immediate risk must be highlighted during this step.

Step Three

This step is to evaluate the chances of a fire occurring, outlining the risks posed to people from such a fire. It is the job of the fire safety officer and wire wardens to find a way to reduce or remove school fire hazards. Some actions to be outlined include using escape routes, firefighting, efficient lighting systems, signs and notices, fire alarm logbooks, fire drills, and fire warnings.

Step Four

This step involves recording, instructing, and training staff and pupils on how to avoid fire situations. You should record any significant findings and actions taken, provide training, and notify relevant people on their responsibilities in the event of a school fire.

Step Five

Once the plan is complete, it should be kept under constant review to update guidelines and ensure that everybody is provided with sufficient training.

Fire risk assessments are incredibly important for schools as they safeguard the lives of innocent students as well as the school premises.

Fire prevention measures

There are several preventative measures that your school can undertake to reduce the risk of a fire from occurring.

These include making sure that:

  • Fire doors are in good working order.
  • Evacuation plans are up to date.
  • Regular fire drills are undertaken.
  • All means of escape routes are kept clear and without obstructions.
  • Fire doors are not wedged open.
  • Rubbish and waste is removed from the school building and securely stored in bins that cannot be accessed by intruders.
  • There are minimal flammable materials stored within school buildings.
  • Storerooms containing flammable materials are made from fire-resistant materials to provide extra protection in the event of a fire.

With arson being a prevalent cause of fires in UK schools, we recommend:

  • Maintaining an effective intruder alarm system that connects to a call-monitoring centre.
  • Obtaining advice on appropriate lighting and CCTV from your local Crime Reduction Officer.
  • Ensuring that all doors windows and skylights are secure. A designated person should be responsible for ensuring all windows and doors are closed and locked at the end of each school day.
  • Graffiti should be removed immediately. If it’s left, vandals could view the school as a target.
  • Maintain good relationships with your school’s neighbours, encouraging them to contact the police if they notice anything suspicious.

Testing fire safety equipment and fire alarms

Your school’s fire and smoke alarms must be tested regularly to make sure that they are both working at all times.

The same can be said for all safety equipment, including:

  • Fire extinguishers
  • Emergency lighting
  • Fire doors
  • Fire signage
  • Access to refuge points for vulnerable or disabled people.
Fire exit sign illuminated in school corridor

Review the school fire drill

Your school’s fire drill must be reviewed regularly to make sure that everybody knows the steps they should follow when they hear the fire alarm. A school fire drill needn’t be a complicated process. However, it must be regular and consistent. Below is a checklist summarising all of the recommendations and requirements of what to do when you undertake a school fire drill.

  • Fire drills must be carried out at least once per school term.
  • Run each drill at a different time.
  • Ask individual members of the school staff to observe and take notes as the fire drill is carried out.
  • Test people’s knowledge of fire escape routes and fire alarm locations.
  • Make sure that all staff know how to help students evacuate and where the evacuation point is located.
  • Test your school roll call/registration procedure.
  • Make sure that people know what to report, including unclear alarms, blocked fire escape routes, and to whom they should report.
  • Make sure that fire wardens practise their duties.
  • Correct any issues discovered during the fire drill.

What should be included in our fire safety policy?

All schools must have a fire safety policy in place, and this policy should be regularly reviewed and amended.

Plans should be specific to your school. By conducting a school audit or reviewing the school property via a risk assessment, you can identify any factors that could impact fire safety.

While specific requirements may vary from school to school, in general, your fire safety plan should include:

  • Emergency procedures to be used in case of fire, including how to:
    -Sound the fire alarm.
    -Notify the fire brigade, staff and school officials, or any wardens or designated staff specified in your fire safety plan.
    -Evacuate all pupils, staff, and visitors from the school safely and effectively.
    -Evacuate vulnerable or disabled people who may need special assistance.
    -Control, confine, and extinguish the fire wherever possible.
    -Allow fire brigade access to the building and the fire location within the school.
  • How, and how frequently, fire drills will be conducted.
  • Information for all designated staff who have been issued fire safety duties or responsibilities.
  • Organisation, education, and training for staff with fire safety duties.
  • Information and actions to take to prevent or control fire hazards for your school, where appropriate.
  • Any additional staff education and training that may be necessary.
  • Detailed maintenance procedures for fire protection systems.
  • Diagrams and instructions concerning the location, type, and operation of any fire emergency systems.
  • Identification of any alternative fire safety measures.

Is there different guidance for new school buildings?

New school buildings will have to comply with UK building regulations. Click here to check the means of compliance with building regulations for fire safety design in new school buildings.

What to do if a fire breaks out

If a small fire breaks out and it can be controlled with a fire extinguisher, a designated fire safety trained member of staff should extinguish the blaze.

If a fire is in any way out of control, you should call the fire brigade immediately instead of approaching or trying to tackle the blaze yourself.

Your fire evacuation plan should outline who is responsible for calling the fire brigade in the event of a fire.

Next, you should make sure that plans are in place concerning all fire exits, and registers must be completed to check that all staff, pupils, and visitors have evacuated the school premises.

Additionally, entrance points must be clearly marked so that when the fire brigade arrives, they know where to head towards and are equipped with all the information they need to fight the fire effectively.

We hope that you found this five-minute guide to fire safety in schools informative and insightful. We understand the importance of preventative measures and strategic safety procedures when it comes to avoiding fires and the damage that they can cause.

If all of your school fire alarms work, you have a school fire drill system in place, and your designated responsible person and staff undertake professional fire safety training, your school’s fire safety profile should be excellent.

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About the author

Marcel Deer

Marcel Deer

Marcel qualified as a journalist from Liverpool John Moore's University in 2009. After working in PR and digital marketing for five years, he spent two years working as a social media consultant. Since then, he's worked from 15 countries as a remote content writing/marketing expert.



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