Would Sprinklers Really Make Your Back to School Safer?

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The supermarkets, stationers and uniform shops of Britain have been super busy over the past couple of weeks as families get ready for the start of the new term. But parents are not the only ones with a back to school shopping list; schools and colleges are also considering how they need to allocate their budget this year and where they can find funding to invest in their campus.

Recent calls from the fire brigade for all school new build, extension and refurbishment projects to include sprinkler systems have added to the potential cost of any major works. The issue has not been raised without good reason: this year fires in London schools have increased by a third, with 47 incidents in 2018 by the beginning of August. Sprinklers are seen as an effective means of extinguishing the fire before it can spread, however, they are not only expensive to install and onerous to maintain, but can also cause additional and avoidable damage in the event of a minor fire or false activation.

At this point, it’s important to be clear - sprinklers are an important fire safety tool and have saved many lives. The question is not whether sprinkler systems should be installed in buildings where fire risk involves rapid escalation of fire and significant risk to life but whether they are appropriate for all buildings, specifically school and college campuses.

Whereas in high rise residential and office buildings the means of escape is often limited, particularly for those who find themselves on the upper floors in the event of a fire, making sprinkler systems an important consideration, most schools are low rise buildings limited to two or three storeys, with multiple exit points. Indeed, many schools operate a one way system in corridors, aiding any evacuation process.

Similarly, sprinkler systems are ideal for environments such as retail centres, hotels and leisure complexes because occupants are often unfamiliar with their surroundings and do not know the location of exits or the quickest routes around the building. Conversely, staff and students in a school environment know the building well and have the opportunity to practice fire drills to ensure their evacuation processes are robust.

The reality is that schools’ over-stretched budgets will struggle to accommodate the cost of a sprinkler system and, in urban areas, dedicating space to the water tank required for the installation is a further impediment. Rather than focusing on sprinkler systems as the golden ticket to a safer school environment, therefore, schools and colleges should consider how fire prevention and detection can work in tandem with security provision, a well-tested evacuation drill and thorough safety policies to create a safer environment on campus.

Expansion of your campus or student population, changes to ingress and egress arrangements, new facilities, accessibility requirements, safeguarding policies or reconfiguration of space can all make existing fire and security arrangements out of date, so it’s worth bringing in an expert to audit what you have on site and suggest how it can be improved. Often those improvements can be rolled out on a staggered basis, as and when budgets allow, and fire and security protection can be integrated to maximise the benefits of technology, aid faster evacuation and make your campus environment safer.

As environments with extensive electrical equipment and targets for arson, school buildings will always be vulnerable to fire and security breaches. The answer is not always belt and braces, however; sometimes intelligent thinking and a holistic approach to making your world safer is more effective.

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Theresa Arthurs