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What is a Fire Risk Assessment?

In this article we will explain why schools and colleges need fire risk assessments, what completing a fire risk assessment for a school involves and who can undertake the assessment.

Why do schools need a fire risk assessment?

The reasons why schools need fire risk assessments fall under three main areas (Click on the titles to expand):

Educational establishments have been legally required to manage fire safety in their premises and to develop fire risk assessments for over 25 years (the requirement coming from the Fire Safety Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997). The current fire safety requirements for these establishments come from the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. During the time that the requirement for fire risk assessments has been in place their required content has been evolving, the latest change, to consider external walls in the assessment, was introduced by the Fire Safety Act 2021.

A failure to develop a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and/or to fully implement its control measures leaves the employer and responsible person at risk of enforcement action by the fire brigade covering the area in which the school or college is located.

The underlying intention of fire legislation is to set minimum standards that ensure the safety and health of employees and others affected by the employers undertaking. This is also the main reason to complete a fire risk assessment from a moral perspective, we don't want anyone to be hurt or killed by a fire on our premises. It is worth remembering that a fire on your School's site not only puts your staff, students, contractors and visitors at risk, it could also put fire fighters in danger trying to tackle the fire and could adversely impact your neighbours and passers-by.

Fire risk assessments for educational establishments will often also give consideration to non-life safety risks. The main non-life risks are financial losses (e.g. replacing damaged or destroyed furniture or equipment, increased insurance costs etc.) and the buildings being unavailable for an extended period while refurbishment takes place or permanently. It is worth remembering that some things within your School are not easily replaced (some may be irreplaceable) such as your students' course work, historic documents, silverware and photographs. The trauma of a major fire can affect staff and students for a long time after the event.

School Fire Risk Assessment Prosecution

Wakefield Grammar School Foundation was fined £10,000 and awarded costs of £14,533 after it pleaded guilty to not having suitable and sufficient fire risk assessments for its schools.

More details about this case can be found in the Competence section of the Health and Safety Case Law Relating to Schools, Academies and Colleges page.

Did You Know?

There were more than 2300 fires in schools in England between 2015 & 2020.

47 schools were destroyed

230 schools were seriously damaged

What does completing a fire risk assessment for a school involve?

Fire risk assessments are similar to other risk assessments in terms that they identify hazards, those who may be affected by the hazard, the potential harm the hazards may cause, evaluate a risk rating and identify the control measures required to elimate or minimise the risk. It is the methodology used to achieve these elements of risk assessment where differences occur. Most professional fire risk assessors use assessment tools/reports based on PAS 79:2020. The assessor will collect information under the following headings to assist them in assessing the fire risk for a particular building or site. (Click on the titles to expand):

The assessor will be looking to determine the nature of the premises (e.g. construction method(s), number of floors (above and below ground), floor area). If there is more than one building on site then information on separation distances will need to be collected so that the transfer risk between buildings can be considered.

Information will be required on the normal occupation numbers. This will need to include staff, students, volunteers, contractors and visitors. The information collected should also consider the occupation levels for events such as plays, concerts & parents' evenings.

Although a fire in a building poses a risk to anyone in the building, there are specific groups of people for whom the risk is heightened. The groups of people affected include the physically impaired, visually impaired, hearing impaired, children with behavioural issues, lone workers, and anyone who sleeps on premises.

The assessor will be looking information on any previous fires that have occurred (regardless of size) and also if the Fire Brigade has issued any notices on the School's employer.

This section will record the relevant fire safety legislation which the premises need to meet.

Electrical safety checks will consider how the establishment is managing the risks (e.g. maintenance and inspection of fixed electrical installation & portable electrical applances, management of adapters and extension leads and policy on personal electrical appliances).

Is smoking allowed on site and if it is how is this managed?

Arson is a major cause of fires in schools (20 schools in the UK are subject to arson attacks each week). Two-thirds of these fire occur outside of the normal school day. The assessor will want to know about the arrangements for school security and also how potential fuel sources an arsonist might use are managed (for example are waste bins/waste oil stored away from buildings and secured against movement).

The method of heating used within the building will impact its fire risk. For example electrical convection heaters pose a greater risk than coolant-filled radiators because the ventillation slots can be obstructed with flammable materials such as books and paper, resulting in increased heating of the flammable material. The assessment will also need to know how the site manages outages in the heating system because the use of temporary heaters increases the risks of ignition caused by the heaters themselves (as in the previous convection heater example) and also through overloading of electrical supply wiring.

When considering the fire risks related to cooking activties the assessment will need to consider the commercial kitchen providing school meals, any food technology teaching areas, mobile cooking units, before & after school club facilities as well as staff rooms/areas if these have cooking facilities (e.g. microwaves, toasters, sandwich makers & kettles). When looking at the commercial kitchen issues which will consideration in addition to the obvious fire sources include, automatic gas shut-offs, fire shutters on serveries & cleaning of extraction ducting (which can have a build-up of flammable fats & dust).

The assessment will need to consider the building's lightning risk. Professional assessors can produce a lightning risk assessment based on location and the height of the building. If following the assessment the building has been fitted with lightning protection the fire risk assessor will want to see evidence that it is being annually inspected to ensure it will provide protection.

Good standards of general housekeeping will minimise the build-up of flammable materials, and obstructions in fire escape stairwells and corridors.

A lot of work undertaken by contractors can increase the level of fire risk on a site. Examples include hot works (e.g. plumbing, flat roof repair), incorrect wiring, inadequate servicing, inappropriate positioning of skips containing flammable materials and blocking of fire escape exit doors. The assessor will want assurance that the school's management understands the risks posed by contractors and have appropriate measures in place to manage them (e.g. competence checks, hot work permits & inspection regimes)

Schools can store a number of dangerous substances on site which can increase the fire risk. The substances may act as a fuel, oxidising agents (increasing the oxygen supply to fire resulting in increased intensity) or may produce toxic gases when exposed to heat or flame. The main activities where these substances may be found are science, design & technology and site operations. However, they may be found in other locations for example someone may think they are saving money by bulk buying dishwasher tablets (an oxidising agent), when plays are taking place aerosol spray paints are purchased to spray scenery etc.

The assessor will use their experience to identify any other less usual fire hazards (for example escape routes which cross roofs).

The building's designated escape routes must be constructed to enable the building's occupants safe egress in an emergency. To achieve this a number of design criteria must be achieved in relation to fire intrigity, capacity, travel distance, fire door operating direction, alternative optione and lack of impedements (e.g. secured doors, obstruction)

Buildings use compartmentation to limit the amount fire & smoke is able to travel around the building. The compartments are designed to resist fire for set time periods (e.g. 30, 60, 90 minutes etc.). The fire risk assessor will be looking for issues which would mean that the compartment is breached (e.g. fire doors held open/ not closing correctly/missing smoke or intumescentseals etc., designed or deliberate breaches of the compartment (e.g. service ducts, pipework etc.) not appropriately fire stopped.), compartmentation walls not completed to roof line and non-fire resistant materials used in compartment construction (e.g. standard glass).

Emergency lighting should be provided in schools as the buildings are occupied at times when there will be low natural light levels. The emergency lighting should be sufficient to enable the building's occupants to be able to safely evacuate to a place of safety (assembly point). Emergency lighting may be required outside of the building to enable the use of external evacuation stairs and paths and steps to the assembly point.

The assessor will look to ensure the building has safety signage which is easily seen and unambigous.

Most schools in the UK are complex arrangements of rooms and corridors, and therefore must be fitted with an electronic fire alarm system. There are different types of fire alarm system. The assessor will consider the activities taking place in your building when considering if the level of protection offered by the fire alarm is appropriate to the risk (e.g. is the alarm panel easily understood/matches zones on fire alarm zone plan, is further smoke/fire detection required and if the alarm should be linked to a monitored call centre)

The building needs to have appropriate numbers and types fire extinguishers/hose reels/fire blankets located near to the known fire risks. Please click the required fire extinguisher provision link for further information

If the educational establishment is lucky enough to be fitted with any automatic fire supression systems (e.g. water spinkler, inert gas, condensed aerosol or solid particulate), the assessor will want to check that it is appropriate to the hazard; and does not introduce another hazard which isn't managed (for example inert gases work by excluding oxygen - releasing the gas into a room with people still inside might not have a good outcome).

This section contains information on other systems provided to enhance fire safety for example fire fighters switches.

The employer must have appointed an appropriate number of competent people to assist him in implementing the identified protective measures. The School's fire procedures must be documented, including arrangements for evacuating people with a disability.

To be effective emergency procedures must be tested by undertaking drills to ensure they proceed as intended. Not only do fire drills provide an opportunity to refine the School's procedures, they also enable employees and students to gain a "muscle memory" which helps them to quickly leave a building when the fire alarm sounds. All staff must be trained in the fire evacuation procedures. Those with particular roles must receive appropriate skills training (e.g. emergency evacuation controller, fire marshals, evacuation chair operators). It is important to ensure any delegated roles can actually be performed in the event of an emergency. It is therefore necessary to have people able to deputise for these roles - they therefore need the same level of training as the people they will be covering for.

There are a lot of pieces of equipment which need to operate as intended if people are to be able to safely evacuate (e.g. fire alarm, fire extinguishers, fire doors, emergency lighting, emergency voice communication systems, evacuation chairs etc.). All of these items need to tested/inspected and maintained. Some of this work will have been undertaken in-house other parts by specialist contractors. Videos on how to undertake some of the local checks can be found in our Resources Section.

The School must maintain effective records relating to the:

  • training it provides;
  • fire drills it undrtakes;
  • the checks, tests and inspections it undertakes/arranges;
  • false alarm activations it experiences.

This part of the document brings the findings from the previous sections together and includes the assessor's overall evaluation of the school's fire risk.

The actions required to further reduce the premise's fire risk will be included in an action plan. It is usual for the actions to be prioritised.

Who is responsible for the school's fire risk assessment?

female fire risk assessor conducting survey in school

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order the employer is responsible for undertaking the fire risk assessment in a school. However in most circumstances the employer will have delegated the organising of this to the headteacher.

Who can complete fire risk assessments in schools?

In complex buildings like schools and colleges it generally would not be appropriate for the establishment to undertake the fire risk assessment itself. This is because it is extremely unlikely that employees of the school or college would be technically competent enough to produce a suitable & sufficient risk assessment. Fire risk assessors usually undertake extensive training and gain considerable experience before undertaking complex fire risk assessments like those posed by most school and college sites.

Once a competent fire risk assessor has undertaken the assessment, the School will need to adopt it (and its associated action plan) as its own. The risk assessment will need reviewing annually (unless there are any significant changes which mean a shorter review period is appropriate). For the fire risk assessments we have completed we recommend the establishment reviews the assessment itself for the first two years before seeking a review by ourselves again in the third year (this is to ensure that the school has not missed anything significant and to alllow for legislative or technical changes in the intervening period.).