Arson attacks on schools are serious and frequent. Nick Bason of the Arson Prevention Bureau sets out the key aspects of awareness and prevention.

There are typically two types of young firesetter: a ‘curiosity firesetter’ and a ‘problem firesetter’.

Curiosity Firesetter

Children aged between 2-7 years are often fascinated with fire and this leads them to “play” with it. They do not understand the destructive potential of fire or the implications of their actions. They usually start the fire with matches or lighters in empty rooms where they have been left alone. Fires may also be started in hidden locations such as in wardrobes or cupboards.

Although curiosity is a normal part of a child’s development, fire play and fire setting, if left unchecked, can have devastating consequences.

Problem Firesetter

Problem firesetters can also be very young, but they are typically aged between 5-15 years. Unlike the curious firesetter, these youngsters light fires for many reasons. These can include boredom or lack of entertainment, malice or peer group pressure. An emotional crisis in the child’s life such as parents going through a divorce, the death of a relative or even a new baby in the family can also trigger firesetting behaviour.

Potential Indicators

  • Poor relationships with other children
  • Problems at school
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Extreme mood changes

Of course, not all juvenile firesetters suffer with these problems nor will all young people with them be firesetters. It is however important that staff are aware of these risk indicators.

Developing an action plan against arson

Once an assessment has been carried out, the next priority is to address the weaknesses identified. These may not all require significant financial resources but may involve housekeeping or training issues. Good management is a vital ingredient of a fire safety policy.

Responsible Person

It is imperative that one person, the head teacher or other senior member of staff, has overall responsibility for initiatives against the threat of arson. This arson prevention strategy may be encompassed in a school’s overall health & safety risk management plan. The process should be supported and endorsed by the governing body and, where appropriate, by the Local Education Authority.

Five Point Action Plan

The prevention of arson attacks falls into a logical process:

  • Deter unauthorised entry onto the site
  • Prevent unauthorised entry into the building
  • Reduce the opportunity for an offender to start a fire 
  • Reduce the scope of potential fire damage 
  • Reduce subsequent losses and disruption resulting  from a fire by preparing a disaster recovery plan.

If an arsonist intent on causing damage is unable to enter the premises, the opportunity to light a fire on the outside of the building is often exploited. In many circumstances wilful damage can get out of hand. For this reason, it is important that the opportunity to ignite combustible material is eliminated.

Refuse containers should ideally be placed in a secure compound or alternatively, secured by a padlock and chain to a post sited no less than 8 metres from the building to prevent them being moved against the building.

Many schools are involved in re-cycling or fund-raising initiatives where newspapers, clothing and other materials are collected. Recycling bins should be located at least 8 metres from the building in secure compounds, and collections made regularly to avoid a build up.

Sheds and other storage facilities for sports and play equipment should be sited at  least 8 metres away from the main building. This will avoid fire spread from such buildings involving the whole school.

Similar precautions should be taken with heating oil, natural gas and liquid petroleum gas installations. In particular the vulnerable parts of these systems, such as the pipe-work and meters, should be secured and protected to avoid them from being vandalised and used as a ready supply of fuel. Bund walls should be provided around fuel tanks to ensure  spillages are contained. ‘Skirts’ should be fitted at the base of mobile classrooms to prevent combustible materials being placed  underneath buildings and ignited.

Waste bins should not be fixed to walls or under roofs constructed of combustible materials, but secured to the ground and away from the school building.

Reducing the scope of fire damage 

Should a fire be started, either deliberately or accidentally, its effect can be minimised by containing the fire to a limited area, and ensuring high value contents are protected.

Partition walls and compartmentalisation
Schools of open plan design are more difficult to protect than those with traditional layouts and separate classrooms. With the latter, the School Security: handbook 25 compartmentalisation (fire-stops in the roof/ceiling voids) is an essential element of the design – even though the classroom construction may not be fire resistant.

During alterations and maintenance, consideration should be given to providing additional fire-break walls or doors to separate the building into compartments. This should include protection of concealed spaces such as roof voids and must be properly designed and carried out with the assistance of professional advice.

To create separate, fire resistant partitions fire resisting screens and doors may need to be fitted across corridors. The restrictions which this might impose can be reduced by installing ‘hold-open’ devices linked to automatic fire detection. Hence doors not required to protect means of escape routes may be left open during the day but would be closed at night as part of the fire protection procedure.

Partition walls need to be inspected regularly. When any maintenance, repair or alteration has been finished, such as installation of pipes or cables through partitions, the gaps around pipe-work must be made good with fire retardant sealant.

Simple ways to reduce potential damage
Early warning of the outbreak of a fire whether it be a waste paper bin which can be extinguished by a member of staff, or the alerting of the fire service whilst the premises is unoccupied, can significantly reduce losses. It means fire-fighting efforts can begin while the fire is in a much earlier stage and has had less chance to spread.

An automatic fire detection system, possibly using the same communication system as the intruder alarm, can help to contain the fire within the compartment in which it originated. This not only reduces the extent of structural damage, but can prevent the entire building  being deemed unsafe and the loss of its contents. To be most effective, an alarm must give warning of any suspicion of a fire to the appropriate off-site  contact.

Equipment of high material value, such as audio visual aids, computers and similar laboratory-type equipment, should ideally be located in a secure, separate room where it will be out of sight and better protected in a fire. Secure fire  proofing for computer labs and rooms holding other expensive equipment can be a valuable investment acting both as a deterrent against burglary and protection from would-be arsonists.

Sprinkler systems
Sprinkler systems are rare in existing schools but are increasingly being fitted in new school buildings, particularly in those which have been assessed as high risk. Sprinkler systems are best regarded as a combined detection and extinguishing system. They have a proven track record over many years for successfully controlling fires in commercial buildings. The number and  distribution of the sprinkler heads is arranged so that they can best cover the area protected. This is usually the entire floor area of the school.

Sprinklers are expensive to install but are relatively cheap to maintain. By careful design of the system, malicious damage can be avoided, e.g. by using concealed heads. There can be additional costs to ensure a suitable water supply is provided but insurance premiums and retained excess levels (such as where the school or LEA pays the first £100,000 of each loss from a retained fund) are often reduced in schools with sprinklers. This can mean a reduction in the overall annual running costs for fire safety.

Reducing subsequent losses and disruption resulting from a fire

Recognition and training should be given to the provision of the most appropriate form of extinguishing medium. Water is the most effective medium for most fires but inappropriate for fires in electrical equipment.

Schools located away from residential areas may have poor emergency water supplies which can hinder the fire service when trying to extinguish the fire. Ideally a private hydrant on a suitable sized main is desirable, but this is usually only available when the site is developed. An alternative for schools in more remote areas, is to locate and plan their own emergency water supply. This could be the swimming pool, or an ornamental pond of sufficient size which could double for nature and wildlife studies/ecology area. Discussions with the local fire brigade about the nature and plan for water in emergencies could be a valuable starting point.

Members of staff must be adequately trained in fire procedures, including how to best summon the Fire Service, building evacuation and the use of fire extinguishers. Designated staff must be made aware of the location of high value materials and equipment, particularly school records which may be irreplaceable, and have knowledge of a salvage plan to recover these items.

In the event of a fire, a service recovery plan will be invaluable. This should be formulated in advance with the assistance of the LEA’s Risk Management Group where this exists, or with representatives from the Local Education Authority.

The service recovery plan should include:

  • Contact details of people who can help in
    • An emergency 
    • An inventory 
    • How media enquiries will be handled 
    • Supplier details

Protection from arson does not necessarily mean 24-hour security, expensive alarm systems or hours of risk assessment. A few simple, low-cost housekeeping techniques can help to reduce the vulnerability of a school to arson and vandalism. Ensuring staff know what to do in the case of a fire and taking preventative measures such as the ones described above can reduce the risks associated with arson and fires in general.