Schools are one of the biggest contributors to false fire alarms in the UK.
For example, between 2018 and 2021, there were over 1500 false fire alarms in British schools where the unwanted fire alarm signals (UFAS) were caused by the 'malicious activation of a fire call point/alarm'.
False fire alarms are a particular problem within the school environment because they disrupt lessons unnecessarily and cause significant disturbance to students’ learning. More worryingly, they can also lead to attitudes of complacency regarding fire safety, which can result in delayed evacuation responses if a real fire breaks out - potentially costing lives.
It is for these reasons – and more – that schools should take measures to reduce the number of unwanted fire alarm signals that occur on their premises.
The Common Causes Of Unwanted Fire Signals In Schools
Schools are at a higher risk of unwanted fire alarm signals, most commonly due to student misbehaviour such as pranks, deliberate disruption of lessons, and smoking on-site. As such, schools should have a robust disciplinary procedure in place for handling malicious activation of fire alarms.
However, unwanted fire alarm signals are not always caused by malicious intent. Other causes may include:
Fumes from the school kitchen, design and technology departments, or chemistry labs
Dust and debris build up around the fire detection systems
Accidental activation of fire alarm systems
Faults in the fire alarm system
Contractors working on-site
Steam from shower rooms
Reducing The Impact On Fire And Rescue Services
You should always investigate the cause of a fire alarm before alerting the emergency services.
If your school is equipped with an Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) system that automatically alerts your local fire department, you should immediately inform them if you suspect a false alarm has occurred.
Measures To Reduce Unwanted Fire Alarm Signals
There are several measures that your school can take to reduce the risk of unwanted fire alarm signals.
Tamper-proof Fire Alarm Devices - There are many tamper-proof fire alarm devices available on the market. These typically use a plastic or polycarbonate cover that retrofits around a break-glass call point.
When the cover is lifted to activate the alarm, the sounder emits a piercing noise, drawing immediate attention to the perpetrator. This helps schools to immediately identify students who have activated a false alarm.
Regular Maintenance - If your fire alarm system is not regularly maintained, it is more likely to suffer faults. This could make unwanted fire alarm signals more likely.
You should ensure that your fire alarm system is maintained by a competent person at least twice a year - and whenever any faults in the system are identified during routine testing.
Upgrade Older Fire Alarm Systems - Older systems may be more prone to faults and can be unreliable. You should therefore ensure that all older fire alarm systems are upgraded to a newer model.
Investigation Delays - If you have an Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) system fitted in your school, you can implement an investigation delay into the system so that you can confirm the fire before the emergency services are alerted.
Ensure Fire Detection Systems Are Cleaned Regularly - You should always ensure that your fire detection and alarm systems are kept free of dirt, debris, and insects to avoid unwanted alarm signals.
In addition, you should ensure that all fire detection equipment is routinely cleaned as part of your school’s sanitation regime.
Consider Smoke Detector Positions - Always ensure that smoke detectors are not positioned in areas with a high risk of unwanted fire signals - like for example, directly above school ovens, or in changing rooms where students may use aerosol deodorants.
The Consequences Of Failing To Reduce Unwanted Fire Alarm Signals
Schools have a legal Duty Of Care to safeguard the health, safety, and wellbeing of their pupils and staff. This means they should take every necessary measure to reduce unwanted fire alarm signals, prevent complacency, and ensure that everyone on the premises has a swift and effective evacuation response in the event of a fire alarm being triggered.
Failure to implement appropriate school fire safety measures can endanger the lives of staff, pupils, and visitors, as well as cause significant damage to buildings and severely harm the school's reputation.
In the UK, local fire and rescue services can and do inspect schools on their fire prevention methods and risk assessments. Those that are found non-compliant with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 may be issued with fines, notices, and penalties.
For instance, in 2020, a school in Wakefield and its Fire Risk Assessor were fined a total of £39,000 after admitting fire safety offences – but the fines for fire safety breaches are unlimited, and for significant violations, individuals can receive a maximum prison sentence of up to two years.
Possible consequences for non-compliant schools include being issued with Alterations or Enforcement Notices, which outline specific details of amendments that must be made to the school site.
Additionally, schools that are considered to be at great risk of a fire outbreak can be given a Prohibition Notice, which forbids entrance to the premises entirely. These Prohibition Notices are effective immediately upon receipt, with strict penalties being enforced for non-compliance.
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