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Why sprinklers are needed in schools

Colemanb2 Cllr Brian Coleman, the Chairman of the London Fire Brigade, calls on councils to include the installation of sprinklers in their Building Schools for the Future programme.

The benefits of fire sprinkler systems in school buildings cannot be underestimated. Figures produced by the Department of Communities and Local Government reveal that over 1300 school fires a year in the UK are attended by Fire and Rescue Services, with a direct cost of over £80 million. When a fire occurs in a building with sprinklers, fire deaths are almost eliminated, while fire injuries and property damage are both reduced by over 80 per cent. On top of this there is a huge improvement in firefighter safety, as well as a decrease in damage to the environment.

Annually, schools in the UK have a 1 in 8 chance of a fire, and nearly a third of all these fires start in school time. Of course the main concern is for the safety of all those within school buildings, but the potential for the disruption of education and loss of pupil’s coursework should also be factored in. This inevitably causes considerable distress, while younger children can lose their whole sense of confidence in school safety in the aftermath of a fire. Meanwhile there is the arduous problem for parents of relocating displaced pupils, and the substantial interim arrangement costs for local authorities.

Sprinkler systems have proved to be effective in minimising fires at source, in turn reducing the scale of damage as well as the risk to life. They award fire-fighters more time to arrive at the scene, while creating less dangerous conditions for them to operate in. Moreover, as part of their design they can be connected to alarms with a direct link to the Fire and Rescue Service, enabling the earliest possible response to a fire.

Concerns about the expense of sprinklers are misguided. Those incorporated into new schools take up only 1.8 to 3 per cent of the total build cost. Indeed these costs can be recovered within five years through reduced insurance premiums (savings which were last calculated as 65 per cent). Over the ten years ending 2005, the cost of school fires has been rising steadily from £49 million in 1995 to £67 million in 2005. Perhaps most significantly, losses in buildings equipped with sprinkler systems equal just 10 per cent of those without.

Additionally, schools are increasingly used outside normal hours by communities as resources for adult education, sports facilities, and meeting venues. Thus when a fire disrupts this civic amenity, it negatively impacts on the wider social environment.

Due to the elevated risk of school fires in deprived areas, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to be affected. The incorporation of sprinklers in the Government’s £45 billion Building Schools for the Future Programme is fundamental to safeguarding this initiative, and improving the future safety of our schools. The wider social and economic impact of fires, as well as the financial costs, needs to be factored in. It is incumbent on councillors who either have executive positions or who sit on planning committees, to ensure that new schools and other public buildings are suitably fitted with modern fire sprinkler systems.

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