“Dangerous and dilapidated… wasteful… school buildings are failing our children and teachers.” RIBA has issued a damning report on the UK’s school building stock, but what can be done to rectify the situation from a door hardware perspective?
A report by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), titled “Better Spaces for Learning,” has revealed some disappointing facts on the UK’s current school buildings environment. Key revelations include:
· One in five teachers has considered quitting because of the poor condition of the school buildings they teach in;
· Over-engineered schools (with government-specified equipment that only costly consultants know how to operate) are costing £150 million per year, which could have been avoided if schools were better designed; and
· The Education Funding Agency’s new school building programme is too rigid, leading to waste and poor value for taxpayers.
RIBA has also identified a school that has been designed to reduce running and maintenance costs, also encourages good behaviour of pupils and increases the level of safety in the building.
One crucial element for school design is the consideration of fire safety and how to best protect pupils, teachers and the wider community. Statistics show that fire service is called out to more than 2,000 schools in the UK per year to extinguish fires, ranging from small rubbish fires to larger, more damaging fires that seriously affect the operation of the school.
Regrettably, many fires in schools are started deliberately and during school hours. Therefore, focusing on achieving the highest level of safety and knowing what needs to be done within the property to ensure fire is managed effectively and safely is paramount to reducing disruption times, stopping schools from burning down and preventing a loss of life.
Escape routes are vital to every building, especially schools. There will normally be one or two alternative short escape routes, leading to the final exit door or a door to a protected stairway.
Escape routes need to have fire resistant walls and ceilings, and fire doors should be fitted to stop the spread of fire. Routes need to be regularly checked to ensure that they are not obstructed, and that fire exit doors are unlocked and operate correctly.
Other common problems to look out for include: broken door closers, damaged fire doors, missing or damaged ceiling tiles.
Never prop or wedge open
Fire doors can meet all required standards and be entirely suitable on paper, but once a building is ready for occupancy, fire doors will only serve their purpose if they are used correctly.
For example, fire doors should never be propped or wedged open. This is an extremely dangerous thing to do as fire doors are made from heavy duty, specially engineered materials and are sealed accordingly to prevent the spread of fire – but don’t work if open. Perhaps users of buildings feel that propping open fire doors gives means of quicker escape or facilitates the movement of high volumes of pupils through corridors. However, realistically, this may cause much more detrimental damage should it allow fire to spread further.
Quality over quantity
Manual door closers designed to work in high-traffic facilities like schools, if correctly specified and fitted from the outset, will more than pay for themselves in a few years. They may also ensure that fire doors are kept closed and open easily throughout the designed life cycle of the building, while helping protect the frame and the hinges and even surrounding walls. Quality door component manufacturers have closers that are tested to 10,000,000 cycles, which would equate to a door that opens 500,000 times a year for 20 years.
On the flip side, the money and time on labour spent replacing a lower quality product will leave the authority or school far worse off financially, without even considering replacing the door from the countless times it could be damaged.
Using a fire door checklist to ensure your doors and door hardware meet requirements is a good way to make sure your fire doors are legal and safe.
A good alternative to wedging doors open is to use door closers that link with an electro-magnetic hold open system to the fire alarm. If there is a fire and the fire alarm activates, the system automatically releases the doors and lets them shut. Alternatively, a free-swinging electro-magnetic door closer linked to the fire detection system will facilitate a barrier-free operation to the door, whilst still allowing the door to be manually closed if required, such as a classroom door.
Final exit doors are often fitted with panic exit devices to provide safe and effective escape through the doorway with minimum effort, and without prior knowledge of operation. In many schools, it is often the case that entrance doors will also be one of the fire exits for the building, which brings the security of the building into question. Security measures should never compromise the ability of occupants to escape from the building.
An electromechanical panic exit device could be considered. It works like a normal exit device, instantly opening to allow immediate exit, but it can be integrated with access control systems which means that outside access can be gained by either using a remote button or local keypad, without comprising security or the safety of pupils and staff in the event of a fire.
Ongoing assessments and maintenance
In local authority schools, responsibility for fire safety is usually shared between the authority and the head teacher. Between them, they are responsible for meeting all relevant building standards, including the installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems, and the ongoing compliance with fire safety legislation and fire safety management within the school. In independent schools, responsibility generally rests with the owner of the building.
The head teacher, proprietor or other staff members who are responsible for the building users’ safety are required to perform regular fire safety and risk assessments. The main duties include:
· Ensure necessary persons are trained on fire safety
· Conduct fire safety inspections, such as ensuring escape routes are clear and fire exit doors are unlocked from the inside
· Ensure firefighting equipment meets regulations
· Check to ensure fire alarms and smoke detectors work correctly and effectively
You can visit the UK’s official government website for more information about fire safety risk assessments in educational premises.
For further information about door hardware and fire safety products within schools, call Allegion’s specification team at 0121 380 2400. Allegion also offers a Try Me & Keep Me Programme, where expert advice on the right door closers for your application is offered and fitted for free.
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