Crackdown on school firebugs

School blazes have cost pound;91 million since 2000. A new risk awareness pack aims to put a stop to such devastation, writes Judy Mackie

Ian Stephen, the senior education and recreation officer with Aberdeenshire Council, was eating breakfast when the call came through about a serious overnight fire at Port Erroll Primary School, Cruden Bay.

The blaze, caused by youths spraying petrol on to wheelie bins, cost the council and taxpayers pound;2 million.

That was April 2000. Ten months later, again as he was eating cornflakes, Mr Stephen heard that Strathburn Primary in Inverurie had been gutted in the early hours. The fire was the result of a stolen motorbike set alight against the school wall. The total replacementrebuilding cost was pound;4 million.

It was a Groundhog Day experience which the local authority, Grampian police and the fire brigade (now Grampian Fire and Rescue Service) were determined to break free of.

Financial loss aside - wilful fires in Aberdeenshire cost council tax payers pound;5,000 every day - the emotional cost to communities affected by fires is incalculable.

"You don't expect it to happen to you and when it does, it's a really strange feeling. It left 450 children with no school. We lost absolutely everything," says Strathburn Primary pupil Stewart Marshall.

"To lose our best pieces of work was terrible, because we'd worked so hard ... it makes you emotional to think about it," says Mari Cadger, of Port Erroll Primary.

Stewart and Mari are among a group of pupils, staff and parents who share their feelings about the Aberdeenshire school fires in a thought-provoking video aimed at nipping fire-raising in the bud.

The video is part of Aberdeenshire Council's new fire prevention pack, a practical risk management tool for schools anywhere.

The pack, together with a colourful Safety Match display, featuring giant matchboxes and flames carrying the message "Don't be a fool - Fire's not cool", is part of a strategy to raise awareness, instigated by the local tasking and liaison group.

The group, set up in 2003, is a partnership between the local authority, Grampian police, Grampian Fire and Rescue Service and Crimestoppers. It aims to reduce risks from vandalism and theft to schools and public property by sharing information and taking preventive action in high risk areas.

The pack is designed to alert adults and young people to the dangers of fire and to encourage them to play a part in the risk management process.

The first section of the video, as well as highlighting the devastating effects a fire can have on individuals and communities, emphasises the importance of a well-structured risk management policy. It acknowledges that schools must prioritise the measures required to meet their own needs and adds that "a regular 10-minute check that prioritises your own environment and takes into account the time of year, internal security and external security can go a long way to maintain and protect your ...


Next, a practical workshop features a short school "housekeeping", during which viewers are asked to spot a variety of risks and note them on worksheets.

The final section repeats the walkthrough, identifying each risk. These range from blocked fire doors and incorrect storage of flammable materials, to clothes left on a radiator and a full skip too close to the school building.

A hard copy also highlights the risks, identifies possible outcomes and suggests examples of remedial actions to reduce the dangers.

Mr Stephen says the pack is flexible and can be used by a number of audiences in different ways: "The resource is predominantly for schools but the principles can apply anywhere and so the display and the video will be available to the wider community.

"In school, we'd like to see primary and secondary senior management teams going through the detailed exercise. The video could also be used for training janitorial staff, and teachers can use parts of it to raise awareness among their pupils. The idea is that everyone becomes more alert to hazards."

Harry Burnett, headteacher of the rebuilt Strathburn Primary, where the fire prevention pack was launched, hopes that it will also encourage young people to think more about the impact of careless actions.

"We have a new school and we are all delighted with it, but we were completely devastated when the original burned down. Listening to the children talking about their experiences might bring that home to others."

For further information and a free test card of the pack, contact Ian Stephen, tel 01224 664605 or email

Fire facts

* In 2003, there were 7,794 deliberate fires in Scotland:

Strathclyde 4,129; Highlands and Islands 127; Grampian 544; Tayside 438; Lothian and Borders 1,576; Fife 516; Central 346; Dumfries 118.

* School fire losses in Scotland since 2000 have cost pound;91 million.

* Around 90 per cent of school fire insurance claims result from arson.

* Fire-raising, vandalism and theft in schools are mainly unplanned crimes of opportunity, perpetrated by past, or present, pupils.

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