Although 72 per cent of school fires are started maliciously, it's the 28 per cent that are not deliberate that could most easily be prevented. A serious fire that caused nearly Pounds 2 million worth of damage at a Cheshire comprehensive in May last year was started by sparks from a welding torch, which accidentally ignited an oily work bench in the school's project area. In July of the same year, an accidental fire at an independent boarding school in Shropshire was caused by workmen setting fire to a bird's nest, while using a blow lamp to strip paint around the eaves of the building during the summer holidays. The damage amounted to Pounds 2.7 million.
Fortunately, no one was injured in either fire. Personal injuries in school fires are thankfully rare, due to good evacuation procedures and the fact that most fires (especially malicious ones) occur when the premises are unoccupied. But there's no denying that better fire precautions, including more effective automatic fire detection systems and the installation of automatic sprinklers, would reduce loss.
One of the main problems, apart from funding, for governors and headteachers who are keen to keep their fire safety measures and equipment up to date, is that there is no one authoritative source of information. Calls to the Department for Education and Employment, the Home Office, the Fire Protection Association, the Health and Safety Executive, and various local authority health and safety officers simply confirm that none of these bodies considers itself responsible for fire safety in schools. Interestingly, each organisation maintains (with an air of authority) that one of the others is responsible.
As the number of fires in schools (1,792 in 1995) is now rising, it's surely time someone took overall responsibility for setting and maintaining fire safety standards in schools.
Dave Garioch, education health and safety officer for Hammersmith and Fulham, says: "This has been a thorny issue for a long time and the situation is still rather messy and unsatisfactory. In voluntary-aided schools, the governors are responsible and in maintained schools, it's the LEA. In any case, when fire alarms need up-dating, there's often no funding for it and recommendations for fire doors can be over-ruled by British Heritage. So in the end you concentrate your efforts on making sure schools carry out regular fire drills so they can clear their premises in under five minutes."
But all this is not to say that there is no one schools can turn to for advice about fire safety. RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) publishes both a brief guide, RoSPA Guide to Health and Safety at School no 2: Fire! and a more comprehensive resource, Together Safely, which is meant to be used with a one-day training seminar. The society also recommends a fire inspection by your local fire brigade, which will identify and offer advice on potential fire risks. Schools themselves should also carry out regular fire risk assessments.
The Education (School Premises) Regulations 1996 stress that attention must be given to three aspects of fire safety: the likely rate of the spread of a fire, fire resistance of the structures; and the means of escape. In addition, an EU directive which takes effect from December, places the onus for fire risk assessment and the preparation of an emergency plan in any workplace on the employer.
There have been a number of building bulletins, notably BB7: Fire and the Design of Educational Buildings, aimed at improving school building design, especially with regard to the protection of roof and ceiling voids where many fires start. There are also various British Standards that apply to fire extinguishers, although this, too, is a thorny area as colour coding has recently changed to comply with EU regulations and using the wrong kind of extinguisher could make a fire worse, or, in the case of CO2 extinguishers, freeze your hand to the appliance.
In general, the advice to anyone confronted by anything other than a very small fire is to leave it to the professionals, or as children are told: "Get out, get the fire brigade out and stay out."
All fire alarm systems should comply with BS5839: Part 1, which provides information about the correct zoning of a building and siting of equipment as well as details on installation, maintenance systems and user responsibilities. Highly sophisticated fire detection and alarm systems are now available.
In America where many schools are fully or partially-sprinklered, research has shown that the more comprehensive the sprinkler system, the less the damage. About one in five American school fires occurred in premises which were partially sprinkler-protected, whereas there were no reports of fires in fully-sprinklered schools.
Only a handful of British schools have sprinklers, although Manchester and Oldham have begun to install them in new buildings and Cheshire and Leicestershire have put some in existing buildings. The cost of sprinklers is high: about Pounds 15 per square metre. But the British Automatic Sprinkler Association points out that this is no more than the cost of carpeting the same area.
All fire authorities have liaison officers who go into schools to talk to children and can supply various curriculum-related resources, including Learn Not to Burn (key stages 1-3) and Francis the Firefly, a storybook and video for four to 10-year-olds. East Sussex has gone further with its converted fire engine, decorated with cartoon characters, which tours schools with three different levels of presentation to reinforce the safety message.
RoSPA, Edgbaston Park, 353 Bristol Road, Birmingham B5 7ST. Tel: 0121 248 2000; the Fire Protection Association, Melrose Avenue, Borehamwood, Herts WD6 2BJ. Tel: 0181 207 2345; Arson Prevention Bureau, Melrose Avenue, Borehamwood, Herts. Tel: 0181 236 9700; Home Office Fire Safety Unit, tel: 0171 217 82038280
* keep flammable materials to a minimum
* lock away flammable items, such as gym mats, when not in use
* keep stairs and corridors clear of combustible material
* avoid piles of rubbish in hidden places
* have all electrical and gas equipment regularly inspected
* make sure everyone in the school knows how to raise the alarm
* check the fire alarm weekly
* keep fire doors and escape routes free and clearly marked
* have regular fire drills and clearly display fire instructions
* make sure all staff know how to safely use the fire extinguishers