Sprinkling of knowledge to deter the arsonists

7th September 2001 at 01:00
The soaring costs resulting from fires in schools has led an insurance company to publish a guide to better security, reports Diane Spencer

School fires, usually caused by arson, will cost England, Scotland and Wales a record pound;87 million this year. Yet much of the damage could be limited by better building design, tighter security and sprinkler systems, according to a new guide by risk-management experts.

"It is impossible to understate the threat and the scale of widespread destruction of our nation's schools by fire and even more difficult to express the pain, anger and sheer helplessness felt by the pupils and staff who experience such an event," says the guide published by Zurich Municipal, one of the biggest players in public-sector insurance.

The company says it is publishing the guide because of the unprecedented amount of funding currently available for school building projects both from central government and the Private Finance Initiative.

"Not since the school-building programmes of the late 1950s and early '60s has there been such activity in this area, and there exists a marvellous opportunity to learn from past mistakes," it says.

The cost of arson, vandalism and theft began to increase in the late 1960s and the trend has been ever upwards. These are "crimes of opportunity, as opposed to planned events", says the guide, and they are mainly perpetrated by past or present pupils.

Costs are high partly because large numbers of schools were built more than 40 years ago using methods developed by the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme. They tend to be made of combustible materials and have wide ceiling voids that do little to slow the spread of fire. Although improvements have since been made to school design, there has been a marked reluctance to install sprinkler systems.

"The surest way of ensuring that a school will not become another fire statistic is to install an automatic sprinkler system," says the guide, which attempts to dispel a few myths about sprinklers:

* They do not all go off at once: sprinkler heads are individually triggered by a fire.

* Water damage is less from a sprinkler than a firefighter hose: 60 litres a minute compared with 600 litres.

* The chances of a sprinkler accidentally going off are 16 million to 1.

* The cost of installation is about the same as a good carpet.

The guide cautions against closed-circuit television as the "cure-all" for vandalism and arson. It also looks at personal safety in the light of the Dunblane and Wolverhampton incidents.

It recommends that a school's main entrance should be welcoming but secure. Only the secretary or other authorised staff should be able to open the door to the main school from the lobby. Good signposting gives a visitor no excuse for wandering around the school site, the guide says. But it adds that security fencing is also an effective defence against theft, malicious damage and fire.

"The design and protection of new school buildings and sites" will be published later this month and will be circulated, free, to local education authorities, foundation schools, PFI contractors and others interested in school building. It will also be available at www.zurichmunicipal.com ICTDiary, Friday, 23

BUILDING FEATURES THAT DETER ARSONISTS AND VANDALS

* Half-hour fire-resistant doors held open by electromagnetic contacts wired into the fire-alarm system

* Overhanging eaves to make roof access more difficult for vandals

* Non-combustible building materials

* Protected waste-storage areas - the most common source of fires

* Secure gas supplies: arsonists target science, food and craft areas

* "Straight line" building designs: recesses and courtyards provide hidden, and therefore, vulnerable points

* Information technology areas on upper floors; windows in ground-floor IT rooms protected by shutters, bars or grilles.

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