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Showering inferno

Sprinkler systems and other basic fire precautions can make all the difference to your school's safety, says Kevin Berry.

Beware outbreaks of graffiti, followed by acts of vandalism and small fires. Your school could be in line for a conflagration. Insurance companies and fire professionals call these linked events the "slide to ashes", and their theory is backed up by plenty of statistical evidence.

There are about 2,400 reported school fires in England and Wales each year. Three-quarters are started deliberately. Arsonists often go for the school office - destroying records and causing maximum distress. Headteachers who have experienced a big fire will advise that you update computer records and the school inventory regularly. Copies should be taken home by the head and school secretary. They will also stress the need for a disaster plan.

Fire brigades deal with about 100 big school fires each year.Ten to 15 per cent cause more than pound;1 million worth of damage.

So how best to deter arsonists? The most effective method is to erect a steel palisade-type fence in vulnerable areas such as corners, courtyards and out-of-the-way places. But take advice on the fence and its siting from local authority risk-assessment experts, insurance experts and crime prevention officers. In some cases police officers have grumbled about access to school grounds, but fire brigades say that their tenders carry tools to get through a fence quickly.

Secure your waste bins away from school buildings or put them in a purpose- built store. A significant number of fires are started in waste bins, after which the bins may be pushed through broken windows or under eaves. Long, loose hall curtains are also an inviting target.

Anti-scaling devices will prevent intruders from climbing on to flat roofs to gain entry via roof lights or interior courtyards. Intruder alarms are only useful, the experts say, if they have a central station connection.

As for preventing the spread of the fire, the Fire Brigade and insurers recommend sprinklers, although some risk assessors urge caution, noting that if security devices are sufficient, there is no need for sprinklers. Smoke detectors are considered the next best thing, although obviously these can only offer a warning.

Two types of sprinklers are available: mist and hard water. The hard water type uses mains water, while mist sprinklers have their own water supply. With the latter, the direction of the water can be affected by sudden gusts. Hard water sprinklers can contain most fires until the fire brigade arrives. Less water is used by the brigade and so there is less damage overall. Zurich Municipal insurance, which covers 70 per cent of UK schools, says a school will recover the cost in seven years as a result of lower premiums.

"If sprinklers are installed, we offer a discounted rate of up to 75 per cent," says Larry Stokes of Zurich. "We will also withdraw the mandatory deductible applicable to that school."

Ken Knight , the West Midlands Fire Chief would like all new schools to have sprinklers. Established schools, he believes, should have them fitted whenever classrooms are refurbished. And he notes: "There's more chance of you winning the lottery than one going off accidentally."

The crucial weakness in school buildings is a cavernous roof or ceiling voids which allow the movement of flame, smoke and hot gases - the main reasons for so many large fires in school.

When fire officers are invited to inspect schools, the roof void is one of the first things they mention. They usually suggest having fire-break walls installed and that these should be checked regularly. Contractors, for instance, often knock access holes in these walls and are then forgetful about filling in the holes when their work is finished.

Brigshaw High School in Leeds lost two-thirds of its capacity in a catastrophic fire. Headteacher, Peter Laurence now speaks often at arson prevention seminars and explains how schools can cope with a crisis and prevent it from becoming a disaster.

"The building we lost was typical early 1970s construction," says Mr Laurence. "No breaks in the roof voids, not fully fire resistant. But our new building will be the closest to fire resistant that modern technology and funding will allow. We will have sprinklers, roof void firebreaks, fire-resistant paint on the girders and a sophisticated fire and smoke alarm system."

Karen Hastier, project manager at the Arson Prevention Bureau, concludes:

"While fatalities in school fires are rare, we should not be complacent. An increasing number of arson fires during the school day could put the safety of pupils and teachers at risk."

Find out moreZurich Municipal the insurer's website carries helpful information and seminar details The Arson Prevention Bureau also offers useful advice. See www.arsonprevention bureau. Tel: 020 7216 7474The Fire Brigade holds regular arson prevention seminars and will inspect schools. Contact your local fire station The Fire Protection Association Tony Ritchie organises fire protection seminars for local authorities on the association's behalf. Tel: 020 8670 1121

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