A recent report by RIBA, titled Better Spaces for Learning, has revealed some disappointing facts on the UK’s school buildings situation. Key revelations included:
One in five teachers have considered quitting because of the wretched condition of the school buildings they have to teach in;
Over-engineered schools, with Government-specified equipment that only costly consultants know how to operate, is costing £150 million per year which could have been avoided if schools were designed better;
The Government’s Education Funding Agency’s new school building programme is too rigid and is leading to waste and poor value for tax payers.
RIBA has also identified that a school that has been designed well can reduce running and maintenance costs, while also encouraging good behaviour of pupils and increasing the level of safety in the building.
One very crucial element to make with school design is the consideration of fire safety, and how best to protect pupils, teachers and the wider community. Statistics show that the fire service are called out to more than 2,000 schools in the UK to put out a fire, ranging from small rubbish fires to larger more damaging fires that seriously affect the operation of the school.
Regrettably, many fires in schools are started deliberately, and also alarmingly during school time. Therefore, focusing on achieving the highest level of safety and knowing what needs to be done within the property to ensure fire is managed effectively and safely is paramount to reducing disruption times, stopping schools from burning down and preventing a loss of life.
Escape routes are vital to every building, especially schools. There will normally be one or two alternative short escape routes, leading to the final exit door or a door to a protected stairway.
Escape routes need to have fire resistant walls and ceilings, and fire doors should be fitted to stop the spread of fire. Routes need to be regularly checked to ensure that they are not obstructed, and that fire exit doors are unlocked and operate correctly.
Other common problems to look out for are: broken door closers, damaged fire doors, missing or damaged ceiling tiles.
Fire doors can meet all required standards and be entirely suitable on paper, but once a building is ready for occupancy, fire doors will only serve their purpose if they are used correctly.
For example, fire doors should never ever be propped or wedged open. This is an extremely dangerous thing to do as a fire door made from heavy duty and specially engineered materials and is sealed accordingly to prevent the spread of fire, but it does not work if the door is being held open. Perhaps users of the buildings feel that propping open a fire door gives means of a quicker escape, or facilitates the movement of high volumes of pupils through a corridor, but realistically all this may end up doing is causing much more detrimental damage should a fire spread further than necessary.
Quality over quantity
A manual door closer designed to work in more extreme situations like a school, if correctly specified and fitted from the outset, will more than pay for itself in a few years and will ensure that fire doors are kept closed and open easily throughout the designed life cycle of the building. They will also help to protect the frame and the hinges and even surrounding walls. Quality door component manufacturers have closers that are tested to 10,000,000 cycles which would equate to a door that opens 500,000 times a year for 20 years.
On the flip side, the money and time on labour spent replacing a lower quality product will leave the authority or school far worser off financially, without even considering replacing the door from the countless times it gets damaged or fixing holes from screws.
Using a fire door check list to ensure your doors and door hardware meet requirements is a good way to make sure your fire doors are legal and safe.
A good alternative to wedging doors open is to use door closers that link with an electro-magnetic hold open system to the fire alarm. If there is a fire and the fire alarm activates, the system automatically releases the doors and let them shut. Alternatively, a free-swinging electro-magnetic door closer linked to the fire detection system will facilitate a barrier free operation to the door, whilst still allowing the door to be manually closed if required, such as a class room door.
Final exit doors are often fitted with panic exit devices to provide safe and effective escape through the doorway with minimum effort, and without prior knowledge of operation. In many schools it is often the case that entrance doors will also be one of the fire exits for the building, which brings the security of the building into question. Security measures should never compromise the ability of occupants to escape from the building.
An electromechanical panic exit device such as the Briton 571 EL could be considered. It works like a normal exit device, instantly opening to allow immediate exit, but it can be integrated with access control systems which means that outside access can be gained by either using a remote button or local keypad, without comprising security or the safety of pupils and staff in the event of a fire.
Ongoing assessments and maintenance
In local authority schools responsibility for fire safety is usually shared between the authority and the headteacher. Between them, they are responsible for meeting all relevant building standards, including the installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems, and the ongoing compliance with fire safety legislation and fire safety management within the school. In independent schools, responsibility generally rests with the owner of the building.
The headteacher, proprietor or other staff members who are responsible for the building users’ safety are required to perform regular fire safety and risk assessments. The main duties include:
Ensure necessary persons are trained on fire safety;
Conduct fire safety inspections such as ensuring escape routes are clear and fire exit doors are unlocked from the inside;
Ensure firefighting equipment meets regulations;
Check fire alarms and smoke detectors work correctly and effectively.
You can visit the UK’s official government website for more information about fire safety risk assessments in educational premises.