Technology is key to solving the fire safety crisis in UK schools

Here’s how the future of building safety standards within education facilities should look…

A recent freedom of information (FOI) request looking into the Department for Education’s school condition data collection (CDC) programme (2017–2019) revealed one in six schools were in dire need of repairs. It also found basic fire-safety standards across the entire education sector were not being enforced in several critical areas. These figures are especially alarming given that the education sector has one of the highest rates of injury/fatality due to fire requiring hospital treatment, with data from the Home Office highlighting that education premises accounted for 4.2% of primary accidental fires across the UK in 2018/2019.

The UK government’s recent green package signals a step in the right direction when looking to make our buildings more energy efficient, but represents an increasing prioritisation of carbon reduction over upholding safety standards. This is a particular concern in facilities that contain some of our most vulnerable members of society.

At present, there is a laser focus on carbon reduction and hazardous cladding. While both are important issues, this ‘tunnel vision’ comes at the expense of wider building safety, which is worryingly overlooked in densely populated buildings such as schools.

Investment in carbon reduction in buildings provides the ideal opportunity to reflect and significantly upgrade safety systems to both prevent incidents occurring and, where unavoidable, mitigate their effects.

Technology can protect lives

The number of electrical devices in schools has increased significantly as technology has advanced, and while this may explain the increase in electrical fires, technology developments have also led to solutions which can mitigate the risks of these fires and offer better protection to individuals. As dangers in buildings continue to evolve, headmasters, caretakers and building owners must work together to assess the complex nature of risk in buildings today. This must include taking stock of existing technologies and how they can be deployed to uphold the highest standard of safety possible.

In 2019/2020, Home Office data found 10% of fires in the UK were down to electrical distribution faults.

There is no silver bullet to building safety and the greater the number of layers the more robust the solution. Prevention, detection, alert and evacuation can be considered a simple model for layering technologies and best practice. Within the final, critical stages of alert and evacuation, adaptive emergency lighting that incorporates increased affordance is another solution that can help avoid the loss of life in the event of an incident.

By responding to specific circumstances, pulsating increased affordance provides a visual alert to an incident before adaptive evacuation technology directs students and staff out of a building in the quickest, safest way – avoiding congestion or unintentionally guiding them towards the threat when trying to evacuate.

The point of avoiding congestion obviously becomes even more relevant in the current COVID climate.

The future of building safety standards

The Hackitt Review encourages the government to take a more comprehensive approach to building safety standards, as these currently only apply to a small set of commercial buildings considered ‘high risk’. The review also explicitly calls out education facilities as buildings with some of the highest risks, due to their complexity and the potential vulnerability of occupants, emphasising the need for the government to bring in specific measures to build additional protection for students and staff.

There needs to be a major shift in the culture of building safety, evolving from ‘fit and forget’ to carefully selecting the right solutions based on the specific needs of an institution. By implementing the right technology and revisiting standards more regularly, headmasters, caretakers and building owners can effectively protect students and teachers, education assets and their reputations.

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