With all of the focus on residential buildings in the aftermath of Grenfell, it is easy to overlook the problems faced by those in charge of fire prevention, safety and evacuation for educational buildings. These are subject to many of the same challenges as their domestic counterparts, with added difficulties stemming from the fact that many occupants will be young and, in some specialist institutions, of limited mobility. Such buildings can be a headache for fire installers and building managers, although many of these issues can be overcome with wireless fire devices.
In any educational environment, the installation and upgrade of fire systems can be complex, although long school holidays do offer a window of opportunity that installers might not enjoy elsewhere. Traditionally, this type of work was done alongside wider refurbishment projects such as rewiring and redecoration, but with rapidly evolving regulations in the post-Grenfell world, it’s not always possible to wait for such an opportunity. Whereas traditional wired fire systems are highly complex to install, however, involving long run cable loops and all the dirt and upheaval that their installation creates, a wireless device can be pre-programmed offsite and installed in minutes, with around 90% less wiring and almost zero impact on the building’s fabric.
With COVID-19, installers working in educational buildings have faced further challenges as it has become necessary to limit close contact with students and staff even further, but even the pandemic has not freed public sector educational institutions and their private counterparts from their obligations to meet the latest fire regulations. Once again, wireless technology is the obvious solution, allowing installations and upgrades to proceed with minimal time on site. Teams will also spend most of their time fitting wired components in service areas and voids, while classrooms, halls and other communal areas receive wireless devices.
Effective fire systems are vital
There are, on average 500 fires in UK educational buildings every year, the vast majority of which are contained and extinguished before they cause widespread damage or harm to students and staff. Schools and colleges can be more prone to fire risks than many other building types. With complex electrical networks, flammable materials in science labs (plus a complex gas supply network) and large open spaces for classrooms and communal areas, there is always a chance of fire incidents occurring, no matter how vigilant the staff may be, and the buildings can benefit greatly from the latest fire technology.
As with all public buildings, educational buildings are subject to fire risk assessments covering fire hazards, risks to building users, actions taken to mitigate risk, actions to be taken in the event of a fire and training requirements for staff. They key difference is the regulations that govern fire safety in new and existing educational buildings, which are contained in Building Bulletin 100: design for fire safety in schools), a specific document published by the Department for Education that recognises the unique challenges and requirements of educational buildings.
In effect, Building Bulletin 100, which applies to nursery schools, primary and secondary schools, academies, free schools, special schools and pupil referral units, serves as an education sector-specific supplement to the BS5839 Part 1 standard governing the design and installation of fire alarm systems. It takes account of unique factors, such as the fact that schools are mainly occupied by young people, who are likely to require more guidance in a fire situation. The primary role of the fire system is to inform staff so that they can call the Fire Service and take a judgement call on whether there is a need for immediate evacuation of any (or all) students, only activating sounders and strobe light alerts as a last resort in order to avoid panic and other risks.
Building Bulletin 100 also specifies factors that need to be considered in different types of educational building, such as a mainstream schools, a special educational institution or kindergarten, where the specialist considerations and requirements may be very different. It also makes clear that, while student protection is the number one priority, other factors also need to be considered, such as protection of academic records, and the protection of key parts of the building, such as science labs.
Overcoming installation challenges
Whereas most of the UK’s current educational building buildings were built in the 1960s or later, with allowance made for cable runs and other infrastructure, there are still many buildings dating back to Victorian times. This makes them inherently unsuited to modern wired systems, which often need to be placed along the walls of corridors, if attics, false ceilings or other voids are unavailable. These cables are not only unsightly, they are also complex to install, hard to replace when life-expired and can also be dust traps, a big issue in an educational building environment.
In any academic environment, the advantages offered by wireless fire devices are clear, with minimal intrusion in the building’s fabric and far less disruption to the daily working of the institution. In fact, once the system has been specified by expert teams, with digital technology used to pinpoint the optimum position for each device, the installation process itself will only take a few minutes. This saves not only time and disruption, but also costs, both for the installation of the system itself and for making good afterwards.
If a need is found for additional classroom space, maybe a temporary structure in the car park, for example, it obviously makes sense to integrate these buildings into the building’s main fire systems wherever possible, and wireless technology provides a rapid and simple solution for achieving this, even if the existing system is wired.
Specific enhancements for education
In response to feedback from educators, modern fire systems are able to fulfil a number of functions that apply specifically to educational buildings. For example, MxPro panels from our sister company, Advanced, feature an ‘Exam Mode’ which allows all sounders in a specific area of the building to be turned off, leaving light beacons only to alert exam invigilators of a fire situation. This means that they can check the validity of the alert, ensuring that it is not a false alarm engineered by students to get out of the exam room, before instigating a full evacuation.
Another innovation is the ability to initiate an ‘Invacuation’ of the building, where a different sound is used to indicate to teachers and staff that there is an emergency situation, but they should either stay put or move their class to a designated secure location. This is intended to address scenarios such as firearms attacks, which are thankfully far less prevalent in the UK than in some other countries, such as the USA.
A Genuine Option
Wireless fire devices have come a long way since their introduction in the early-2000s, moving from a niche product to a mainstream, everyday solution that can often cost less than the wired alternatives, once installation costs and making good are taken into consideration. For UK educational buildings, under intense pressure to deliver fire improvements without compromising on patient care, and anxious to avoid further delays to already overstretched waiting lists, they are an ideal solution.
The truth is that modern wireless devices are the equal of their wired competitors in every way, and can often exceed them in capabilities and performance. Historical concerns, such as battery life, are now a thing of the past, with batteries lasting up to five years on the latest products and, when faced with the triple whammy of post-Grenfell regulation, the need to minimise disruption to students and the COVID-19 pandemic, wireless is looking more and more like the first choice for specifiers and fire installers in the educational sector.
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