Are you fully up-to-date with the latest guidance on preventing arson in your school? Gill O’Donnell provides a comprehensive briefing to make sure that you are

With the summer holidays looming – and hopefully, for some of you, a well-deserved break – the one job you probably don’t want to be reminded about is checking your Fire Risk Assessments. However, it really is an appropriate time to do so, as the risk of arson is ever present and the disruption that can be caused by a summer holiday fire should not be underestimated.

The Health and Safety Executive’s figures show that 46% of arson attacks occur in schools. In 2002, that was the equivalent of three school fires every day in the UK. The financial cost for 2002 was estimated at £96.6m. Of course, the cost isn’t limited to finances alone; often the loss of the building is only the start of the problems. There are issues such as rehousing students, loss of resources, loss of coursework, loss of personal property and, more importantly, the devastating impact on the morale of the staff and students. For those who have been with the school for any length of time, it can be quite soul-destroying to see years of work and memories going up in flames.

Who starts fires?

Statistics suggest that most arsonists are over the age of 18; however, a significant proportion (34%) are aged between 10 and 17, and 5% are under-10s and therefore below the age of criminal responsibility. In these two groups, the majority of arsonists do have some connection with the premises at which the fire-raising takes place. Normally the perpetrators are male and in some cases they will be ex-students. However, because so many school arsonists – more than 90% of them – escape detection, it is impossible to build up an accurate picture of arsonists and their motives. Deprivation, drug or alcohol abuse and problems at home can be factors. The picture of the disgruntled teenager who decides to act out a personal revenge by setting fire to their school is not necessarily the only scenario to be considered when thinking about guarding against arson, and to do so may lead to complacency when it comes to assessing risks to your premises.

Why arson occurs

A number of key reasons have been identified as to why people start fires deliberately, regardless of the premises chosen. They are as follows.

To cover up another crime
This is most likely to occur in schools when a major theft has taken place. The burglar fears that evidence at the scene might be linked to them and so attempts to destroy it by fire.

To settle a dispute (either personal or professional)
This might initially seem far-fetched in a school situation but it is quite common in other areas. A small dispute can grow rapidly between firms and extreme actions result. However, the more common scenario is that of a disgruntled employee deciding to take advantage of a weakness in the firm and exacting revenge for past slights, real or imagined. As well as staff, this scenario can extend to former or current students. Often the arsonist has a history of truancy and petty crime and ex-student arsonists may torch their school in revenge for staff at the school having slighted or criticised them.

Result of terrorism or civil unrest/disobedience
Again, this might once have seemed unlikely but should now be treated seriously in all fire risk assessments. Inner-city schools in particular should consider how they protect against threats of this nature.

Insurance fraud
This is a quite common reason in industrial premises but it is not beyond the realms of possibility even in a school scenario.

A deliberate action by a person with a psychological problem
This is the classic pyromaniac scenario. Research in 2001 by the Arson Prevention Bureau (which is funded by the Home Office and the Association of British Insurers) suggested that 20% of all convicted arsonists have mental health problems. Since then, it has called for more specialist treatment for arsonists and sufficient places in secure hospitals for serial and serious offenders.

A prank that gets out of control
This is often the case in school fires, particularly those which start during the day. These include simple incidents such as setting fire to waste paper bins. The intention behind this is not to cause a huge fire but the blaze can swiftly escalate.

An act of vandalism
These tend to be the scenarios where the fire occurs out of school time and again escalates quicker than imagined by the perpetrators, such as setting fire to rubbish in the skip or bins, or burning an outbuilding, which then spreads to the main buildings.

How risks are increased

Having considered who might be tempted to set fire to your premises, you should now consider what makes a set of premises particularly vulnerable to arson. National statistics show that the building most likely to be targeted by an arsonist is a garden shed in an unlit area at night. This highlights two key issues – the fact that the building is set apart from its neighbours and the fact that it is likely to be unmanned. The same factors apply to schools and show why they are particularly vulnerable targets. If you add into this equation the fact that schools also often house attractive and expensive equipment, you can quickly see why there are three fires per day in schools.

Fire Safety Guidelines recognise the following factors as being those which make a building more vulnerable to arsonists. Examine them carefully and then look at your own premises to assess your risk rating.

1. Next to open space where large numbers of young people might congregate (this will be the norm for most schools).
2. Close to a neighbouring business which may be vulnerable to attack.
3. Buildings have outbuildings or courtyard areas or hidden places where people can hide easily.
4. Poorly-defined perimeter, allowing ease of access at all times of day and night.
5. Unmanned or little used entrances to the building where access can be gained without being easily observed.
6. Easy access to rooftops, eg through overhanging trees, drainpipes, flat roofs, etc.
7. Poor external lighting.
8. The outside of the building is not always left secured (this will often apply to schools where after school/ evening activities take place and the doors are then left for a caretaker to lock at the end of a session).
9. There is access for vehicles outside of normal working hours.
10. Any further security deficiencies of any sort.

It is easy to see how schools are far more difficult to protect against arson than are industrial premises, as their very nature makes them centres for people to congregate and also makes them less likely to be enclosed behind high fences. However, security is of key importance when defeating arsonists and there is one area where schools do have an advantage over many other buildings: their role as centres of the community means that they are more likely to be of interest than most other buildings. If someone feels a strong connection to the school they are more likely to report anything unusual they see happening there, than if they see it at some other place. Good community relations can lead to community vigilance as a way of combating arson and other vandalism, so schools should always take part in Neighbourhood Watch or similar schemes where possible.

Improving protection

Having carried out an arson assessment, through examining the issues outlined above, you should then address the areas of weakness. These will not all require tremendous financial resources but might involve changes to housekeeping or increased training. The key issues to consider are as follows.

How to deter unauthorised entry onto the site
A clearly delineated boundary allows others to see when someone is on the premises and will act as a deterrent by making it clear this is private property. A well-maintained hawthorn hedge, for example, can be seen over but is not easy to climb through. This may need to be coupled with fencing. Good external lighting is essential, but seek advice if using CCTV, as the colour tint of the light can reduce the effectiveness of the cameras. The best deterrent is to have people living on site or a random patrol system.

How to prevent unauthorised entry into the building
The most vulnerable parts of the school are the doors and windows, particularly those that are not overlooked by neighbours. All external doors and windows should be fitted with approved locks and secured immediately the building is vacated. When buildings are used outside normal school hours, ensure that access to all other areas of the school is limited and always ensure that a nominated person checks all external doors and windows once the school has been vacated. Where possible, fit intruder alarms in areas of high value and in corridors where it would be possible to detect intruders moving between rooms.

How to create a culture that does not tolerate arson
It is likely that one of the principle risks of arson on your school premises comes from the student body themselves – whether you’d like to admit it or not. In order to reduce the risk of fire-raising among your own students it is necessary to create a culture where arson – even on a very small scale – is simply not tolerated in your school. Schools often do this by bringing in outside speakers such as members of the fire brigade or police, to warn against the risk to life and property of fires and to explain how quickly a small fire can become something much more serious. For some students, shock tactics can work, too – either showing the effects of fire, or giving details of the penalties for the criminal offence of arson. A serious arson is as disrupting to the students as it is to the staff and the emotional impact of a major fire in a school can be hard-felt. Students can take an active role in preventing arson by designing posters to keep the school community alert to intruders, or with other key security messages. They could also lead an assembly for other students so that the risks of arson on kept on the agenda.

How to reduce the opportunities for an offender to start a fire
It sounds simple, but don’t provide the fuel for a fire to take hold! Ensure that all refuse containers are kept in a securely locked compound so that they can’t be placed against the side of a building. Recycling containers also need to be sited away from the school (ideally at eight metres distance) and regularly emptied. Similarly, ensure that all outbuildings (such as sheds, sports stores and so on) are sited at least eight metres away from the school, to ensure that fires can’t spread. Fit mobile classrooms with skirts to make sure that combustible materials can’t be placed beneath them and make sure that all waste bins are emptied at the end of the school day and are secured to the ground.

How to reduce the scope for potential fire damage
As far as possible, ensure that any fire is contained in a limited area by using compartmentalisation to delay spread. This may require fitting fire-resisting screens and doors. Ensure that there are adequate fire stops in roof and ceiling voids and always check that alterations to buildings don’t compromise these essential structures. Make sure all high-value equipment is located in a secure, separate room and that all partition walls are regularly inspected and properly maintained. Where practicable, consider fitting sprinkler systems to act as a detection and extinguishing system in high-risk areas, and ensure that all fire detection and fire fighting equipment is regularly inspected and in good working order. To be fully effective, an automatic fire alarm system (possibly using the same system as the intruder alarm) should give warning off-site. This may seem expensive but it can mean the difference between containing a fire in the compartment of origin and losing the whole building.

Minimising subsequent losses
Make sure you have the correct fire fighting equipment to hand to tackle a fire: for example, fire extinguishers suitable for the type of fire likely to be encountered. Liaise with the local fire authority to make sure that you can provide the facilities the service will need in an emergency, such as ease of access and hard-standing for fire engines, sufficient water, and plans of the building; and make sure that someone will be on hand in an emergency to furnish them with information. Make sure that staff are aware of the location of key information such as school records and that these can be reached in an emergency. Ensure that your school has a service recovery plan so that should the worst happen, you have a plan of action ready to swing into place. This should include details of:

  • who can help in an emergency
  • information on suppliers
  • full inventories
  • detailed plans as to how media enquiries will be handled
  • the system for contacting students and staff.

Additional information

For further information on this topic the following websites are useful:

  • Firesafe – practical advice on how to combat arson in schools
  • Ideas for raising awareness of the problem of arson in schools, and how to conduct a risk assessment

Gill O’Donnell is a health and safety consultant with extensive experience in the schools sector