Recent fire in Bristol

The government’s ruthless decision on school sprinklers is a huge mistake

If anyone really believed that a new prime minister would mean a change in the government’s approach to the fire and rescue service, they will have been proved badly wrong by the recent decision to drop requirements for sprinklers to be installed in all new school buildings. It is a short-sighted, nonsensical decision that compromises the safety of firefighters and the public.

The installation of sprinklers in new schools was a policy introduced in 2007 by Dorset MP Jim Knight when he was an education minister in the last Labour government. The move was outlined in a government document called ‘BB 100 Design for fire safety in schools.’ It was described at the time as “a landmark in improving fire safety in schools”, by the then government and it identified the major fire risk that schools pose and the need to make them even safer places for children. The stated purpose of fitting sprinklers was to “help prevent the devastating impact that a fire can have in a school (which is) longstanding”.

At the time, many of us felt that even this did not go far enough as it did not produce a requirement to retrofit older schools but it was a very welcome and positive step forward for safety.

Now, however, the government has redrafted the document, completely changing the previous wording. What had read: “it is now our expectation that all new schools will have sprinklers fitted”, has been replaced with a statement declaring the absolute opposite. It now reads “BB 100 no longer includes an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them (sprinklers)”.

"The government’s arrogant decision flies in the face of overwhelming evidence."

In doing so, the government has overturned a basic, relatively modern policy that was introduced to keep children and staff in schools safe, safeguard against long-term damage to children’s education and protect school buildings and resources for future generations. The government’s arrogant decision flies in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Since the policy was introduced sprinklers have been credited with saving 17 schools from huge fire damage. They allow for quick evacuation of children and staff and limit the spread and growth of fire. Their removal would be disastrous. The subsequent damage to children’s education due to the loss of a school in a fire can be both long-term and catastrophic. There are also other societal costs in the loss of a school, including the jobs of staff and the loss of the school building and facilities to community groups and sports clubs.

The cost of fitting sprinklers to a school represents a very low investment when weighed against that of a rebuild due to fire. The average cost of a large school fire, as recorded by the Fire Protection Association (who collate statistics on behalf of UK insurers), is £1.3 million. Compare this to the cost of having a sprinkler fitted which is, according to Jim Knight, “roughly the same as carpeting a school”, and any reasonable person will recognise the sensible option.

In addition, recent legislative changes by the Department of Education, especially around academy schools, means that much of this cost will ultimately be borne from the public purse i.e. from taxpayers like you and me.

The government has proceeded with the short-sighted and dangerous measure of scrapping the requirement for sprinklers in new schools regardless of the risks, showing a contempt for safety and no regard to the potential disruption of our children’s education.  

We, as firefighters, know that large school fires destroy education, cost society millions of pounds and endanger the lives of children, staff and emergency services. We must unite with all other interested parties, including trade unions in the education sector, and demand a reversal of this disgraceful decision.

There is no group of people who understand more the huge value of having sprinkler systems in schools than firefighters. We are, after all, the ones who risk our necks to tackle fires in schools, of which there were 600 last year. We understand more than most the vital role that sprinklers have in preventing fire growth, limiting damage and saving lives.


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