New schools in Sheffield built without sprinkler systems against fire brigade's safety advice

None of the new schools built in Sheffield since 2016 have sprinkler systems installed, in spite of fire safety guidance which says that “all new schools should have fire sprinklers, except a very few low risk schools”.

Wednesday, 3rd November 2021, 7:10 am

The Building Bulletin 100, published in 2007, states the recommendation for schools to have sprinkler systems installed as a fire safety precaution. Although it is not a legal requirement, fire services and the Government itself support the expectation that sprinkler systems are fitted in new schools.

In 2016, the Government attempted to have the sprinkler recommendation changed to exclude all schools except those ‘with a floor above 11 metres’ - an alteration which would have vastly reduced the number needing sprinklers installed.

This attempt to change the guidance failed due to heavy objection from fire safety professionals, meaning the recommendation for sprinklers in the vast majority of schools still stands.

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South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue has stressed the importance of sprinklers in schools.

Despite this, not a single one of the three schools built in Sheffield since 2016 has had the safety measure in place, a Freedom of Information request by The Star has confirmed. The schools are UTC Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, Mercia School on Carter Knowle Road and Astrea Academy Sheffield in Burngreave.

The Building Bulletin 100 says: “All new schools will have sprinklers fitted. Any exceptions to this will have to be justified by demonstrating that a school is low risk and that the use of sprinklers would not be good value for money”.

However, the schools in Sheffield have instead been built with other fire safety measures in place instead of sprinklers. This is allowed - albeit not advised - according to the Building Bulletin 100 which also says: “A designer is not required to follow the guidance in this document, but may adopt an alternative approach, possibly based on fire safety engineering. This is a risk-based approach, with the aim of providing an acceptable level of safety that gives good value for money. The onus is on the designer to demonstrate that the design results in an appropriate safety level, as good or better than that achieved by following the detailed design guidance here.”

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South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue has stressed the importance of sprinkler systems in schools.

In spite of this alternative option, Simon Dunker, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue’s prevention and protection functions, stressed that sprinklers are the safest option.

He said: “We are strong advocates of sprinklers and have been for a long time – they are proven to stop fire spread, protect buildings and save lives.

“To this end we will always advocate the installation of sprinklers in any high risk buildings and – along with the National Fire Chiefs Council – would welcome their installation in schools across the country.”

Councillor Jayne Dunn, Executive Member for Education, Children and Families said "Sheffield City Council takes the health and safety of children and staff extremely seriously and can confirm that the development of the new schools at Astra and Mercia Academy have both been built to comply with all fire safety guidance and statutory requirements. This includes Building Bulletin 100 and Building Regulations approval from the Local Authority Building Control.

"Sprinklers are installed as property protection and as part of a risk-based approach, alternative fire safety engineering measures have been incorporated into the design of the buildings. There are also robust fire safety strategies in place to ensure the safe and timely evacuation of pupils and staff from the schools in an event where a fire evacuation is needed.

"The UTC at Olympic Legacy Park was not developed by the Council. Any enquiries about this should be directed to the Department for Education who undertook the development."

Meanwhile, not a single one of the new state schools built elsewhere in South Yorkshire since 2016 complied with the fire safety regulations, either.

In Doncaster, New College Doncaster, XP EAST, Bader Special Academy and Doncaster UTC have all been built without sprinkler systems.

In Rotherham, Waverley Junior Academy was built without them and Trinity Academy St. Edward’s in Barnsley has also been built with no sprinkler system.

According to analysis of Home Office data from all 44 fire authorities in England by the insurer Zurich Municipal, ‘the equivalent’ of 1,100 classrooms have been destroyed by school fires in the last five years.

The same dataset showed that South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service were called out to 66 blazes in schools over the last five years.

ZM, which insures about half of all schools and universities in the UK, says that two fires resulted in significant damage to the whole school buildings in South Yorkshire, “but it’s not clear if any of the affected schools had sprinklers fitted.”

ZM also found that fire crews have been called to tackle 2,300 school blazes in England. ZM said that 47 primary and secondary schools were ‘gutted’ by these fires and 230 were ‘seriously damaged’.

And the insurer estimates 390,000 teaching hours could be lost in the next year as a result of large fires alone, causing disruption for 28,000 children.

Last year, campaigners called for the law to be changed to make sprinklers a statutory requirement in all new-build and refurbished school. This is already law in Scotland and Wales.

Speaking at the launch of that campaign, Nick Coombe, protection vice-chair and building safety programme lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council, said: “Of almost 1,000 fires over five years in buildings where sprinklers were fitted, our research found they controlled or extinguished blazes in 99 per cent of cases.

“Sprinklers can dramatically reduce fire damage, making the reopening of a school much easier.”