Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Temperature rises on fire safety

New fire safety regulations are coming in April which will replace large amounts of national and local legislation.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 requires any employer or person in control of premises (which includes schools and colleges) to appoint a "competent person" to conduct a "suitable and sufficient risk assessment" in regard to fire and hazardous substances.

Findings must be recorded and acted on, and the steps taken recorded. Findings should be reviewed regularly - at least once a year and more often if there has been a change in use or working practices, or an addition or adaptation to the premises.

The purpose is to ensure the safety of all persons on the premises, whether workers, visitors or students.

The fire authorities have the power to inspect premises and to request to see records. It is an offence to obstruct or seek to mislead them. If they are not satisfied with what they find, they can issue an enforcement notice requiring changes to be made or a prohibition order preventing the premises from being used.

The regulation assumes that the "competent person" conducting the assessment will have training and experience in fire prevention. In other words, this is an expert task.

A suitable risk assessment will include details of detectors and alarms, non-automatic fire-fighting equipment, escape routes, appropriate signage and emergency lighting. The assessment should identify dangers and remove them if possible, evaluate the risk if not and develop a policy based on a culture of fire prevention and safety.

Fire safety is something that schools and colleges can be too casual about and it is worth noting that the head or principal can be found guilty for negligence. If anyone is injured or suffers from smoke inhalation, the head/principal may be interviewed under caution and charged with a criminal offence. The penalties can vary from fines to imprisonment for two years.

Leaders should contact the fire service, the authority's health and safety adviser or a reputable commercial risk assessment firm to produce the risk assessment. Staff should be trained - there is no purpose in having fire extinguishers around if no one knows how to use them.

The caretaker's log book should include any instances of neglect or disregard of policy and action should be taken. It should be clear to all staff that a caretaker has the power to overrule any member of staff who disregards fire safety policy.

If it all does go wrong, it will be important to contact the ASCL hotline and ask for advice before the fire officers arrive to conduct their enquiries. As with a car crash, it is important to volunteer information only in response to lawful questions, as advised by a solicitor.

Richard Bird, ASCL Legal Consultant

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