Fire protection: it’s an education

By Keith Minster, Sales Manager UK & Ireland for Morley-IAS by Honeywell

Recent research has identified that more than 90% of the general public rarely think about how to get out of a building, whether or not they use it regularly.  In the event of a fire alarm, the most common response is ‘to follow the people around me’, with more than one quarter of respondents ‘assuming that it is a false alarm until advised otherwise’.

This is a potential headache to the operator of any premises, but presents particular problems for schools and other buildings with a high proportion of young people who need greater guidance as to how to respond in the case of a fire-related emergency.

This must be taken into account when designing and implementing a suitable fire detection and alarm system for any education establishment. It will form part of a full fire risk assessment which must be undertaken to ensure users are properly protected.  This will be carried out by the ‘responsible person’ under the Regulatory (Fire Safety) Reform Order (RRO) to identify and resolve any associated fire hazards.

Any public building is likely to be subject to hard use by regular and occasional users and so will demand a robust fire detection and response system that will withstand the rigours of the working day.

At the same time, installations under the control of the public purse continue to be subject to tough scrutiny, resulting in the cancellation or postponement of many projects not considered essential in meeting compliance demands. Equally, any installation that is approved must offer the required level of protection within a highly cost-effective package.

However, in the case of schools, academies, universities and other youth facilities, any risk assessment today will also have to take account of the particular pressures and demands of buildings designed predominantly for use by young people. At the same time, with many buildings also used by adults for further education and other community activities in the evenings and at weekends, they must also be able to respond to a broader range of pressures in ensuring adequate safety for all types of users.

One of the more obvious of these is addressing the higher than average incidence of false alarms, whether through accidental, careless or deliberate misuse. 

Minimising false alarms

In addition to selecting a system with a proven reputation for resilience and reliability, there are a number of ways in which this problem can be tackled in minimising the incidence of unwanted alarms. First, in siting call points and detectors for example, the design and installation of the system must balance accessibility with the need to avoid devices being set off either inadvertently or wilfully.

Where call points are within easy reach, the addition of protective covers requiring a seal to be broken in order to activate the device can also help here.

However, more broadly within a multi-use environment such as a school or college, the reduction of unwanted alarms can be achieved through the use of a variety of devices designed for different applications.  The use of heat detectors in kitchens or food technology classrooms and smoke detectors in dormitories or halls of residence are typical examples of the ability to provide detection appropriate to each specific environment.

The latest multi-criteria devices are ideally designed for complex applications such as laboratories, workshops or accommodation blocks which can be especially susceptible to false alarms. Recent developments have enabled an intelligent response capable of combining the data from multiple sensing elements in providing a fast response to real fires, at the same time remaining extremely resilient to false alarm incidents.

By utilising a combination of heat, optical smoke and infra-red sensing elements, the broadest range of fire conditions can be detected, providing the earliest possible warning.

Class change

The modern analogue addressable fire alarm system can meet a unique requirement of a typical school environment. Traditionally, a bell has been rung to facilitate and co-ordinate the move from each lesson to the next: today’s fire alarm sounders can be used in short bursts to manage this class change, switching to a continuous tone when the building has to be evacuated.

In a large multi-building school or college, the fire alarm sounder can also be controlled zonally, with sounders pro­grammed to be activated only in those areas under threat, so ensuring phased evacuation where a ‘one out all out’ response is not necessary.

Underpinning all this of course is the issue of cost throughout the life-cycle of the fire safety system. It is important therefore to consider the on-going cost of support as well as the upfront purchase and installation costs. Here, the adoption of an open protocol system offers users the additional flexibility of being able to ‘shop around’ for the most cost-effective maintenance deal from expert providers fully trained on the system.

Rapid evacuation

In universities and other residential environments with large multi-storey accommo­dation blocks, the latest Building Regulations demand that any fire safety solution includes a fire telephone system, combining disabled refuge and emergency voice communications.

The wireless radio systems operated by fire brigades are not always fully effective throughout all parts of an affected building, both above and below ground. As a result, a constantly-monitored, hard-wired EVCS system incorporating fire-resistant cabling, will ensure that students, staff or visitors can make contact with those managing any evacuation.

The role of voice

It is critical to ensure that staff and visitors alike within any public building are able to respond quickly and correctly to a fire warning. Sophisticated and intuitive voice alarm systems have evolved to form a key part of comprehensive fire detection and alarm systems, designed for complex environments in which individuals will respond to warnings in different ways.

Integrated solutions linked to a broadly-based cause and effective matrix benefit both building users and fire-fighters called to deal with the emergency. It enables the fire brigade to easily identify the precise source of the incident and take over the voice alarm/public address (VA/PA) system to broadcast specific messages, ensuring rapid yet controlled evacuation from any part of the premises at risk. VA/PA systems can also be used for broadcasting general messages, paging and music and can be zoned to ensure that specific areas can receive the appropriate message.

It should be considered that although a VA/PA system will add some cost there are savings to be made as a consequence of installing a properly designed VA/PA system. Firstly, for example there would be no requirement to install individual public address systems in areas such as the main assembly hall or refectory areas that may have a requirement for background music as the VA/PA system can be utilised for this purpose.

A lecture theatre or indeed a theatre where a drama or play may be performed requiring amplification throughout the auditorium would be another area that would benefit. This is in addition to the savings made by not having to install fire alarm sounders to facilitate evacuation of the buildings in the event of a fire.

As a result of the greater flexibility of the system in non-emergency situations, a growing number of education facilities are adopting VA/PA solutions to ensure rapid and controlled evacuation, in particular where large numbers of young children are involved.

In addition, the latest graphics solutions providing full information in a clear, simple format allow st
aff and attending fire crews to quickly locate, understand and respond to any fire-related incident that arises – especially valuable in large, complex campus environments.

In summary, integrated fire safety solutions can be tailored to ensure full compliance and provide the flexibility needed to meet the specific demands of any education project. Equally importantly, the highest levels of protection can be delivered within the constraints of today’s toughest budgets.

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