Degrees of Safety
The photographs of fire ripping through the roof of a student block of flats in Bristol recently were a sobering reminder of the difficulties of protecting university buildings. The building housed over 100 students and it’s a miracle that no-one was hurt. It seems the cause was an unattended pan of oil and a spokesperson from the Avon Fire & Rescue Service said that the fire alarm system, ‘undoubtedly saved lives that day’.
There are many reasons why university buildings are difficult to safeguard – and although I hate to say it, the students themselves are near the top of the list. Just think of that Bristol chip pan and how the culprit must regret being distracted. Halls of residence and student flats are densely populated by a diverse range of individuals. And they have kitchens – manned not by expert cooks familiar with the dangers of fire but by young people with minds full of anything but.
Thankfully the alarm system in Bristol was obviously working efficiently and those in the building took action quickly. However, university halls and flats are notorious for the number of false alarms they clock up, not least because of the drain on fire and rescue service resources.  Often burnt toast or high spirits are the cause, but unmaintained systems can be to blame too.
The University of Glasgow, for example, was recording over 450 incidents of false alarms a year. A few simple measures such as giving students a safety briefing before moving into the premises has now reduced that figure to 89.
But even without the students, property managers responsible for university buildings can have a difficult job. Most universities have evolved over the years and comprise a complete mismatch of different building types – from ancient crumbling colleges to plate glass tower blocks.  On top of this some halls or flats are probably privately owned.   Typically each will have standalone fire detection and alarm systems – probably all from different manufacturers. Checking that each has been routine tested and maintained can be a difficult task.
However, there are now solutions – such as SMaRT Web from Drax Technology - that can read information from almost any make of fire alarm system, so property managers have a view across their entire estate. These solutions provide detailed information about the status of their fire alarm system, or the precise location of the alarm activation, on their smartphone or tablet.  This will alert key staff immediately saving precious time.
They can also receive notifications on their smartphones of any faults in the fire alarm system, enabling them to deal with these immediately. Apart from ensuring that the building is never without a fully-serviced alarm system, receiving precise information on a fault in this way can also save money.
A fire alarm engineer, also receiving the notification and who knows the system well will be able to decide whether the fault needs an immediate response. This avoids unnecessary overnight or weekend call-outs, which can be expensive. The information will ensure that the engineer attends the site with the appropriate parts to resolve the problem, negating the need for two visits to first, investigate and then fix the problem.
Looking after the safety of students can be a trying business, especially when a minority can be thoughtless about their own and others’ wellbeing. Making them aware of the dangers is a first step, possibly using examples such as the recent Bristol incident to bring home the point. But the best way to ensure peace of mind is an overall and immediate view of the current state of alarms across all buildings. Only then will a property manager know they are doing all they can to prevent yet another incident.