Tackling fire safety

Tackling fire safety in education facilities 

With many schools, colleges and higher education facilities currently suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis, the government and higher education leaders should use this time to consider how new technologies can help to prevent and mitigate the impact of fires within student occupied buildings.

Advances in technology have mirrored the increasing number of electrical devices used in higher education facilities today – from smart whiteboards, to iPads and cloud based servers – but unfortunately, this has lead to a naturally higher probability of electrically ignited fires too.

The good news is that fire mitigation technology has not lagged behind and there are now a variety of solutions which can reduce the risks of fires and offer better protection to individuals within large complex buildings such as colleges or universities.

Technology is key

Electrically ignited fires – which can occur in buildings new and old – can be prevented before they even start through Arc Fault Detection Devices (AFDDs) which prevent arc faults in both the fixed wiring of a building but also beyond, including cable reels and extension leads. The technology is now proposed to be mandated for circuits supplying socket outlets, within the forthcoming update to BS7671 (UK wiring regulations) due to be published in 2022 – and are widely available for deployment in our higher education facilities across the country.

Northampton College is an example of an institution that recently took steps to ensuring a higher standard of safety for their students and staff by upgrading the evacuation technology on its largest site in Booth Lane, which caters to almost 4,500 students. The campus is complex and consists of eight large blocks, each with up to three floors, all of which are interconnecting into one huge building compound. Due to its layout, the college identified that the Booth Lane site needed a fire alarm system that could adapt its emergency signage according to where there was an emergency, so that occupants would not inadvertently enter a hazardous area when leaving the premises during an incident.

The current fire safety system was installed more than a decade ago and the college could no longer source spare parts for the signage luminaires when required. They also relied on their internal batteries for signage switching illumination in the event of power failure – something that legislation no longer allows. The college needed to find modern escape signage luminaires that they could retrofit onto the existing system and still offer the same or improved functionality, so firstly installed a new set into the old fire panel system using its existing twisted pair cable and mains power wiring. Using a switching contact at the luminaire in conjunction with matrix technology allowed the sign to change from a directional arrow to a red cross, in response to a signal from a fire alarm or a smoke detector.

This meant that the college could start using the new signs to either direct people to a safe exit route or block an unsafe route. Once again, these adaptive emergency lighting and evacuation signage solutions are widely available today and are examples of how such technology can help avoid congestion in complex buildings when an emergency occurs.

A holistic approach

The government and those responsible for the management of education buildings must prioritise fire safety, but this can only happen with a holistic approach that combines regularly evaluating standards with technologies available today.

Many electrically-ignited fires can be prevented before they start and evacuation processes can be streamlined to get people to safety more quickly. As risks continue to evolve, university leaders and building owners must work together to assess the complex nature of risk in buildings today by carrying out thorough risk assessments, taking stock of existing technologies and then strategically deciding how they can be deployed to uphold the highest standard of safety possible. When it comes to our students, we do not want it to be a case of ‘too little, too late’.

Marc Gaunt, segment lead, commercial buildings, Eaton

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