A lesson in sprinklers

Selsey Academy

The newly rebuilt Academy Selsey will not have sprinklers installed, the trust that runs it has confirmed. With hundreds of schools in the UK having a fire each year, and with each one more costly and disruptive, the argument for installing sprinklers in schools is compelling. The Government must ensure sprinklers systems are fitted as mandatory in all new schools and any undergoing a major refurbishment.

In August 2016, the West Sussex secondary school was burnt to a shell in a blaze which could be seen from across the town and required more than 75 firefighters to attend. The school’s 453 pupils had to be taught in four separate locations in the Selsey area, and the start of term was delayed by four school days to allow staff time to prepare for teaching in the new surroundings. Therefore, with all the disruption caused by the fire, why are sprinklers not being fitted during the rebuild?

Karen Roberts, CEO of the school’s trust TKAT, explained the reasoning for neglecting to install sprinklers: “In schools, the prime function of a sprinkler system is building protection, while the building design – including access routes and building materials, maintenance and evacuation procedures – is what actually impacts on safety.”

The argument for sprinklers is not solely based on life safety. School fires have a devastating impact on both a school and a community. Measures such as sprinklers drastically reduce the amount of damage done when there is a fire, and enable schools to get up-and-running quickly, reducing the cost, both economically and socially, to the public.

Commenting on the lack of sprinklers at the rebuilt Selsey Academy, Iain Cox, Chairman of the BSA, said: “This is another case of value engineering, where the cost of installing sprinklers has been cut out without any idea of the potential impact. There is also a tendency to think that because we have suffered a major fire we will be extra vigilant. But over time that vigilance will slip. It may not be this year or the next, or it may be something that you cannot actually control, such as arson. Surely, it is better to protect the asset, so you won’t have disruption and the lost opportunity?”

While it is true that no staff or students were injured in the blaze, the cost to the community was immense. Beyond the obvious costs of rebuilding the school, 453 students had their school lives disrupted, losing almost an entire week of their education. Ensuring the safety of a building’s occupants is considered the bare minimum under current regulations, but is clearly not the optimal outcome. A sprinkler system would serve to protect both the occupants and the building, allowing students to return to normality far more rapidly and with considerably less disruption to teachers’ already hectic schedules.

Home Office figures show there have been 1900 fires in schools over the past three years. The impact of these fires both financially and in terms of disruption to students, teachers, families and the community can be devastating. Furthermore, the Association of British Insurers says the most expensive school fires typically cost around £2.8 million to address, and over the past four years an average 24 of these large-loss fires have occurred every year, totalling £67.2 million.

Currently, sprinklers are mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and Wales, but not in England and Northern Ireland. The Government is currently reviewing Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) and has suggested that the ‘sprinkler expectation’ will be removed. The BSA wants the government to explicitly maintain the ‘sprinkler expectation’ in the revised BB100 so that fewer schools are damaged and destroyed by fire.

The National Education Union (NEC) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have recently written to Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, asking why schools – including both Selsey and the one at the base of Grenfell Tower – have been classed as being too ‘low risk’ to be given fire sprinklers. A further 32 new schools are due to be built in Northamptonshire without sprinkler systems, despite the clear expectation this should happen.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Grenfell Tower should have been a defining moment in the way we view safety in public buildings but it seems that health and safety is still seen as an opportunity to cut corners and save money.”

Mrs Roberts, speaking of the soon-to-be reopened school, said: “Our priority now is to focus on allowing our students and staff to move back into the new building and continue with their education undisturbed.”

The BSA shares Mrs Roberts’ concerns regarding disruption to education, with government reports advising that even a single missed day of education can have significant effects on future exam results. The installation of sprinklers could limit the damage from fire; significantly reducing the potential disruption to the students’ school life.

The same misconceptions about cost and the impact of disruption can be seen across the commercial and industrial sector. The BSA is calling for better education on the substantial benefits that fire sprinklers can deliver to the business community and wider economy. Fire does not discriminate; whether it is a school, a car park a warehouse or an office, fires happen on a regular basis. However, they can be contained and extinguished by systems such as sprinklers to ensure that life is not put at risk and businesses, jobs and the economy are protected.