Preventing Fires in Student Accommodation

With over 2.3 million students in the UK, student accommodation has been a growing sector for many years. More than ever before, young adults are choosing to leave home to pursue further education and experience the university way of life. This rapid increase has seen billions of pounds invested in the construction of new student accommodation buildings as well as the renovation and modernisation of older blocks. With the advent of induction hobs and their potential to cause fires, preventing fires in student accommodation and raising awareness of the dangers has never been more important.

Safety for Students – Preventing fires in Student Accommodation

For the university or private student accommodation provider, this brings a unique set of challenges. Younger adults rightly want to enjoy their new-found independence and the university social life, and the priority is therefore to allow them this right without putting them in harm’s way or restricting their freedom.

There is perhaps no better example of the challenges in finding this middle ground than with kitchen safety. A vital part of student life – in fact, life for anyone – is the freedom to cook for oneself. However, almost all fires start in the kitchen, and when inexperienced or distracted people are the ones in the kitchen, this risk is exacerbated; in 2018/19 the rate of non-fatal casualties among those aged 17-24 was higher than in the 55-64 and 65-69 age groups (source: Fatalities and non-fatal casualties by age, gender and type of location, England). Technology that can prevent fires in student accommodation, without affecting the ability to cook, is therefore the ideal solution.

The Impact of Fires in Student Accommodation

A fire in university accommodation affects both the university and the students in several ways.

From the university’s perspective, depending on how serious the fire was, part or all of the accommodation block will be out of action until repairs have been carried out, or at the very least until the affected part of the block has been ventilated. Students may be harmed by smoke, fire, or during the evacuation. Costly temporary rehousing will be required. In some cases students might need counselling or other help, and may have lost belongings in the fire. The fire service will be called out, and could even charge for it depending on where the university is. An insurance claim may also be necessary. The upheaval in any case can be significant both financially and administratively.

From the student’s perspective, their studies will be negatively impacted, they may have to move elsewhere to live with people they don’t know or even with people that aren’t fellow students. They might have lost treasured possessions, and they may find themselves living quite far away from their friends.

Even in the very best of cases, a fire or smoke still causes significant disruption.

False Alarms in University Accommodation – the Importance of Preventing Activations

There are many ways of significantly reducing risk of injury or death from smoke or fires. Comprehensive evacuation procedures are mandatory, and fire and smoke detection technology saves lives every day. When these solutions work as intended, they are extremely effective, which is why smoke alarms have been a legal obligation for landlords in the UK for several years.

The problem with fire and smoke detectors, however, is that they are prone to false alarms. In student accommodation, this is a well-known fact; only the minority of alarm activations are actually the result of a real fire. In principle, this shouldn’t be a serious concern – it’s clearly “better to be safe than sorry” – but these false alarm activations have undesired consequences.

In fact, false alarms from fire and smoke alarm systems are now so common in student accommodation that students often don’t even take them seriously. This was no more evident than in the recent fire at The Cube in Bolton on 15th November 2019, after which a student reported that she didn’t react to the fire alarm until one of her flatmates alerted her to the urgency of the situation (source: BBC).

An unavoidable downstream effect of this desensitisation is that the more often fire alarms are activated, the less effective they are at actually protecting people.

Means of Protecting Students from Fires

There are several ways in which false alarms in universities can be effectively reduced:

  • Not installing smoke alarms in the kitchen. Given that smoke is more dangerous than the fire itself, this is less than desirable despite the fact that it is the de-facto solution
  • Raising awareness of the importance of staying in the kitchen while cooking. This is effective but only to a limited degree
  • Discouraging cooking while tired and/or under the influence of alcohol. Again, given the university lifestyle, this is difficult to enforce

For the university, this seems to present a difficult choice; is it better to have fewer real and false alarms, or more?

For the students, false alarms cause two downstream effects. The first, discussed above, is a diminished respect for the alarm system. The second is the disruption to their sleep, studies and everyday life every time a fire alarm goes off.

How Can We Prevent Fires in Student Kitchens?

So what can be done to further reduce the risk of kitchen fires? Older technology such as fire extinguishers and fire blankets exists, but universities rightfully advise against manually tackling fires.

Technology already exists to put out fires and smoke. Automatic systems such as sprinkler systems are highly effective at putting out fires, and suppression hoods ensure that fires on the hob are promptly extinguished. But there is a fundamental problem with this approach…

It relies on a fire starting.

A sprinkler system will not activate unless a fire is detected; nor will a suppression hood. This is not only less than ideal, it’s ineffective – smoke is more dangerous than a fire, and a kitchen can be full of it without these systems even activating.

This is why genuine fire prevention is by far the best choice, because all of the below is avoided:

  • expensive installation and purchase costs
  • insurance claims
  • repairs
  • water damage
  • fire service call-outs
  • ventilation of the building
  • clean-up
  • recharging or servicing costs
  • false alarms
  • loss of belongings
  • temporary rehousing and its costs
  • trauma
  • disruption to sleep, studies and normal life

What is Fire Prevention?

At Unicook, a common conversation we have goes something like this:

“What fire prevention methods do you have in place?”
“We have smoke alarms and suppression hoods”

As neither smoke alarms nor suppression hoods are fire prevention, we see time and again that the term ‘fire prevention’ has in part been hijacked and misused for a long time.

However, with modern technology, fire prevention is now a reality.

Airis was created to prevent fires in student accommodation without the risk of fire and without affecting normal cooking. It will also prevent almost all toxic smoke. The hob user will never even know Airis is there unless it has saved them and their flatmates from smoke inhalation, or fire, or the embarrassment of having set off the central alarm system.

If you would like to learn more about how Airis can significantly reduce costs and fire service call-outs while improving safety, why not get in touch with us?