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UK universities could be putting students at greater risk of electrical fires

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Universities across the UK are not investing in new technologies that could reduce the risk of electrically ignited fires, potentially putting students at risk, according to new research from Eaton. 

In fact, a freedom of information request of 76 universities across the UK found that more than a quarter had received complaints from students, staff or the public in the last five years regarding fire safety or building evacuation procedures. 

The new research comes just days after further questions were raised about the cladding on buildings across the UK, after student accommodation in Bolton became engulfed in flames. It seems that cladding is not the only area where universities are failing to keep their students safe. 

Despite technological innovation today and the widespread availability of proven fire safety and evacuation solutions, many universities are abiding by the minimum standards required by regulation but not yet aware of or investing in existing technology which can improve safety standards for their students and staff.

The changing nature of fire prevention 

Modern universities are always-on environments. They are experiencing and catering to growing demand for energy given the increase in connected devices used on campus and both students and employees’ requirements for 24/7 uptime. Today’s increase in electrical device usage means the need for fire safety measures to protect against electrically ignited fires has never been more important. Research has previously revealed that 54% of all fires in England are caused by an electrical defect. As UK universities invest in technology to support their always-on, connected learning environments, they will also need to consider the potential consequences of this shift – including how best to safeguard against electrical faults that have the potential to spark fires. 

This FOI revealed that many universities have not yet invested in proven fire prevention solutions which can avert an electrically-ignited fire. For instance, the majority (63%) of responding universities do not have Arc Fault Detection Devices (AFDDs) in place. AFDDs are considered the best practice in circuit protection due to their ability to digitally monitor the wire for specific frequencies that can indicate an arc fault. While current UK electrical regulation remains below the level required to maximise protection against electrically ignited fires, the 18th Edition to the IET Wiring Regulations – published in July 2018 – is a step in the right direction. This new national standard included recommendations for the installation of AFDDs to mitigate the risk of fire due to the effects of arc fault currents.  

Marc Gaunt, segment lead, commercial buildings, Eaton commented, “Given how recently UK regulation has recommended the use of AFDDs, it’s likely that even the early adopter universities are yet to fully grasp the benefits of AFDD technology or implement it across all of their higher-risk buildings. For facilities managers balancing all the demands within a building, from maintenance to security, getting a close grip on the latest safety technology available or even the ins and outs of regulation beyond bare minimum standards can be tricky. Yet with lives at risk, it’s vital that building owners and facilities managers consider the huge safety advantages which come with implementing technology which not just detects fire but can prevent it in the first place.”

Adaptive evacuation strategies for today’s risks 

The majority of UK universities (72%) today communicate their evacuation procedures proactively through written mediums. The FOI also revealed that two thirds (66%) communicate through passive written materials – for example posters in buildings – while 64% use passive digital materials, such as their website. However, this widespread focus on ensuring students and staff are aware of the evacuation procedures is not yet supported by implementing technology which helps individuals to exit a building as quickly as possible depending on the type and location of risk. 

Almost all (92%) of responding UK universities do not currently have adaptive evacuation signage in place, which uses digital technology to switch between a number of predefined routes in a given circumstance and guides people towards the safest available exit. For example, the directions displayed by exit signage would change in the instance of fire on the fourth floor versus a flood on the second floor. While 16% of UK universities plan to implement adaptive evacuation signage in the coming three years, there is a clear opportunity for facilities managers to look into the benefits of this technology – creating a safer environment for students and staff as well as reducing the likelihood of complaints around evacuation standards in future. 

“Adaptive technology that responds to specific circumstances to ensure safe evacuation of occupants is particularly important for universities, considering the size and complexities of many campus buildings,” added Gaunt. 

“The changing nature of risk in today’s buildings means there are a wide range of reasons for an evacuation – from fires, to floods and terrorism. It’s important university management and facilities managers are constantly re-evaluating the evacuation procedures and newest technologies to help protect students and faculty. This means knowing where the risk is located and not falling back on a ‘stay put’ strategy.

“New technologies are available that help avoid congestion or unintentionally guiding people towards the threat when trying to evacuate. In a university, where the safety of students is of the utmost importance, it’s imperative facilities managers are continually educating themselves on the newest evacuation technologies and that they are sharing this knowledge with key stakeholders.” 


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