Fire protection for schools

August 2014


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DAVE HIPKINS discusses the importance of procuring the right fire protection system for your school.


FireDecisions around the procurement of fire protection solutions for schools should not be made lightly. In the event of a fire incident, an appropriate and well-maintained fire protection solution can mean the difference between a small fire and a devastating, possibly fatal, blaze. 

Fire is a very real risk for New Zealand schools. According to the New Zealand Fire Service, there were 427 fires in education buildings between 2007 and 2011, which accounted for 10 per cent of all non-residential fires.

Along with posing a risk to the safety of students and staff, a fire can have costly consequences. The economic cost of fires in education facilities totalled $33.7 million dollars between 2007 and 2011, with each fire incident costing an average of $78,936.

Boards of trustees face a myriad of decisions when procuring fire protection systems, including considerations around funding, equipment, providers, maintenance contracts and costs.

It is important that boards approach these decisions with a big-picture mentality. Each decision should be considered in the context of the school’s unique fire protection requirements, which can help to ensure a suitable fire protection solution is installed. This includes legislative requirements, the school’s fire hazards, and existing fire protection systems.

Conduct a detailed fire risk assessment
Conducting an assessment to identify fire hazards is an important first step for procuring a fire protection solution that adequately meets the needs of the school.

A fire hazard assessment is not a DIY job. Boards are encouraged to consult a reputable fire protection specialist with experience in the education sector to conduct an assessment. This can help to minimise the chance that something is missed.

It is important that boards familiarise themselves with common fire hazards, as the responsibility for fire safety ultimately lies with the school. Hazards will vary depending on the facility but may include electrical equipment, kitchen or heating appliances in canteens or staff rooms, chemicals in student laboratories, or combustible waste material, such as paper recycling bins. Fire escape routes should remain clear at all times.

Regular hazard assessments will help to identify gaps in fire safety as the school changes or grows. An assessment should be conducted every time a new building is added to the campus or existing buildings are upgraded.

Selecting fire protection equipment
Selecting a fire protection solution is a significant decision and cutting corners to save on costs is not recommended.

Schools undertaking a new build or refurbishment should commission a fire engineer to undertake a fire report. This report will be the blueprint for the installation of a fire protection system, and will include details on the type of system and the standard to which it should be installed to.

Executive officers are reminded to pay careful attention to quality, suitability, and warranty details when selecting fire protection equipment. It is important that the equipment is suitable for the environment in which it is installed; for example, outdoor heat detectors should be able to withstand wet weather. Though short-term savings may be appealing, poor quality equipment may require ongoing maintenance or replacement, resulting in unexpected costs in the longer term.

Existing fire protection systems are also an important consideration. Integrating new fire protection systems with existing ones can help to ensure the two systems work together seamlessly, streamlining fire safety procedures.

A broad range of fire protection equipment is available, from basic fire extinguishers or hose reels, to passive fire solutions or advanced fire detection and suppression systems.

Be familiar with legal requirements
Though a fire protection specialist can provide advice on legal requirements, compliance is ultimately the responsibility of the school. Boards should consider all relevant legislative requirements and standards when procuring a fire protection solution.

These include the Ministry of Education’s Guidelines for Fire Safety and Design for schools, the Building Code of New Zealand, and the Fire Safety and Evacuation of Buildings Regulations.

Section C/AS4 Acceptable solution for buildings with public access and educational facilities (Risk Group CA) of the Building Code of New Zealand specifically relates to fire protection requirements for education facilities, including fire systems, means of escape and prevention of fire.

Consult the experts: how to choose a fire protection provider
Fire protection specialists can provide professional advice, assistance with mandatory fire audits, and a comprehensive maintenance and testing service. They can also ensure the building complies with the strict standards, regulations and reporting requirements surrounding fire protection.

A reputable fire protection provider will adhere to stringent and rigorous codes of practice, have a high level of public and product liability insurances, and hold necessary licences or certificates. When engaging a fire protection specialist, ensure the provider is performing their obligations as per the service contract and in accordance with applicable standards and legislation.

Executive officers are also reminded to enquire about the providers’ systems and processes. A reputable fire protection specialist will have technologies and routines in place to streamline the process of keeping buildings safe and ensure equipment is serviced regularly.

Dave Hipkins is national technical manager for Wormald New Zealand, a leading provider of fire protection solutions. Wormald is responsible for servicing fire protection equipment and systems at over 2200 of New Zealand’s government-owned schools.

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