Insurers sound the fire alarm

4th April 2003 at 01:00
5NEW design guidelines for school buildings to minimise the risk of fire were launched last week at the annual conference of Scotland's local authorities.

The move comes as the cost of school fires, many of which are malicious, reaches record levels. Figures from Zurich Municipal, the leading public sector insurer, reveal that Scottish schools accounted for 34 per cent of the pound;96.6 million cost of school fires in the UK last year.

Dennis Davis, HM chief inspector of fire services in Scotland, says in his foreword to the guidance that there were 195 fires on educational premises last year. Of 20 "large loss" fires in the UK (where damage exceeds pound;500,000), five were in Scotland and caused pound;21.7 million worth of damage.

Among the major casualties was Vale of Leven Academy in West Dunbartonshire where damage totalled around pound;9 million. But this was dwarfed by a pound;30 million blaze which destroyed Morgan Academy in Dundee in 2001.

Mr Davis commented: "Losses on the scale of nearly one school every two months cannot and must not be tolerated."

Guy Munnoch, managing director of Zurich Municipal, said the current boom in school building and refurbishment, stimulated through public private partnerships, was an ideal opportunity to improve the design of buildings and sites and to make schools less vulnerable to fires.

Zurich believes that much of the damage could be avoided. Problems include:

* Inadequate fire breaks in walls, ceilings and roofs.

* Poor fencing and lighting.

* Inadequate alarms and a dearth of sprinklers.

* Too many "hiding places" for vandals such as flat roofs and recessed doorways.

* Waste being stored too close to buildings.

Larry Stokes, underwriting manager at Zurich Municipal, who chairs the Arson Prevention Bureau's school working group, says sprinkler systems are the single most important step a school can take to minimise fire damage.

"They can also be installed more cheaply in new buildings, and savings on insurance premiums will repay the costs in only a few years," Mr Stokes said.

Zurich warns of an "ill-informed reluctance" to install sprinklers. The guidance sets out to counter misconceptions such as claims that sprinklers can go off accidentally (the chances of this are 16 million to one) and that water can cause more damage than a fire (a typical sprinkler head discharges 60 litres a minute compared with 600 litres from a firefighter's hose).

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