Preventing fires in student accommodation

Younger adults rightly want to enjoy their new-found independence and the university social life. New friends, new streets and cities to explore, new jobs to work, new schedules and responsibilities, and a head full of new ideas and expectations as they face the social and academic challenges of new environments. It is unlikely their minds are on the stark realities of fire safety in the kitchen while they are experiencing the adventures of a rich new world. So how do we raise awareness and prevent fires without inhibiting their newfound freedom? Can a balance be struck? Or perhaps there is something better all together we could be doing.

We are the UK experts on cooking safety in student accommodation and we believe that preventing fires and raising awareness of the dangers of cooking fires has never been more important than now. We’ll find out about the impact fires and false alarms have on students and accommodation providers, what means there are to protect students, and offer a solution for preventing most kitchen fires altogether. Let’s begin.

Safety for students

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels - A Student in a Student Accommodation Kitchen Cooks on the Hob
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Kitchen safety is a vital part of student life and we think this is where the balance can be found. In fact, this applies to everyone, even you and me. To cook for oneself is a wonderful freedom but given that almost all fires start in the kitchen and students are usually inexperienced or discovering new independence, it’s easy to see how they might be more at risk than others. Especially given the clichéd propensity for alcohol consumption… In 2018/19 the rate of non-fatal casualties among those aged 17-24 was higher than in the 55-69 age groups (Fatalities and non-fatal casualties by age, gender and type of location, England)? Is that surprising?

According to the House of Commons Library there are over 2.3 million students in the UK. It’s no wonder the student accommodation sector has been growing for many years. Now more than ever, young adults are seeking out education opportunities away from home and immersing themselves in the University experience. This has driven billions of pounds of investment in new purpose-built student accommodation and renovation of older blocks. But, has fire safety improved along with it? We don’t think so for one simple reason. Building standards are an absolute bare minimum for acceptable construction quality levels. Think about that for a moment.

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels - a Student Works on her Bed in Student Accommodation
Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

Do those flashy, newly refurbished and purpose-built uni halls really enable students to prevent fires or will they just focus on stopping the fire from spreading after it’s started? With the increased prevalence of induction hobs and their potential to cause fires, is this stance really adequate enough? The issue poses a unique set of challenges for universities and private accommodation providers, let’s find out why and how it can be managed easily and effectively.

The impact of fires in student accommodation

A fire in student accommodation will be an uncomfortable experience for the university or private provider. The block will be out of action until investigations are undertaken, ventilated, and any repairs completed. If there is a sprinkler system then this is likely to be even more extensive and extremely costly to rectify. More so in time spent dealing with insurers, finding alternative accommodation for those affected. Even with modern compartmentalisation, students could easily be harmed by fire or smoke inhalation. The fire service will be called out and this can be a chargeable expense depending on the university location. The upheaval in any case can be significant both financially and administratively. Notwithstanding the impact it will have on your reputation and future admissions to the institution. Bad news travels fast and it sticks.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels - A Tired Student
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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. Their belongings are also likely to be damaged and some of these will be irreplaceable. They might have lost treasured possessions, and they may find themselves living quite far away from their friends. It will be an upsetting disruption to their schedule and their ability to study will be affected. The psychological impact may necessitate counselling to help the student recover and get back on track, all while trying to meet important academic deadlines.

Even in the very best of cases, a fire or smoke still causes significant disruption. In the worst cases it can, and does, cost people their lives. False alarms are also fairly common within student accommodation, let’s have a look at their impact now.

False alarms and their consequences

Photo adapted from Nothing Ahead from Pexels

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 glaring issue with fire and smoke detectors is one we’ve all experienced. I expect you already know what we are going to say… 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.

So prevalent are alarm activations, in fact, that they are often completely ignored, putting people at serious risk if a real fire starts. We’ve all done it. This was no more evident than in the fire at The Cube in Bolton in 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 (BBC).

False alarms are also pretty annoying, especially when you’re trying to crunch through a small forest’s worth of textbooks and research and squeeze that knowledge out into a few thousand words before tomorrow morning.

So, the more they happen, the less sensitive we are to them and the less effective they are at actually protecting people. But all is not lost. Below, we look at some more effective ways of protecting students from fires and false alarms.

Protecting students from fires and false alarms

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels - A Lit Fire Exit Sign in Student Accommodation
Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

We know how disruptive fires and false alarms in universities can be, but how do we protect students from them?

  • Well, the de facto solution is to remove smoke alarms from the kitchen, or not install them in the first place. We can’t stress enough what a bad idea this is. Smoke is incredibly toxic and is a bigger killer than fire. It’s better to know about it sooner, so leave them installed and test them regularly.
  • Raise awareness of the importance of staying in the kitchen while cooking. This is effective. As a watched pot never boils, a watched pan never catches fire. It sounds obvious but it’s all too easy to pop out of the kitchen for a minute or two, and that’s all it takes.
  • Discourage cooking when tired. Uni life can be demanding so if you know you’re going to be up against it, pre-prepare food that can be heated quickly in a pan or the microwave. Batch cooking on weekends is a great solution for this, and the food will stay fresh in the freezer afterwards.
  • Don’t cook while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The law stops us driving because we’re not in control, even if we think we are. The same applies to cooking. You are using flammable substances and things can get out of hand extremely quickly and easily. If you’re under the influence, it’s even more difficult to think straight and act quickly. Eat before you drink, it’s also better for you.
  • Use appropriate fire safety signage, make sure it is clearly understood and well positioned.
  • Include fire safety information and action plans in your induction week materials and keep them easily available on your online student portals.

For the university, it seems to be 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. It’s probably better to prevent alarms sounding, and fires, all together, right?

Preventing fires in student kitchens

Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels - Purple Smoke
Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

So that leads us to our next point, what can be done to prevent kitchen fires? Older technology such as fire extinguishers and fire blankets do work for fire suppression, but universities rightfully advise against manually tackling fires. It’s dangerous and insurers baulk at the idea. And for those with a certain proclivity, they also provide an irresistible opportunity for idle hands to cause mischief, rendering them useless when they’re legitimately in need.

So, technology already exists to put out fires and smoke. Automatic installations such as sprinkler systems are highly effective at putting out fires, and suppression hoods ensure that fires on the hob are promptly extinguished. But, these all have one thing in common, don’t they?

They rely on a fire starting.

By this time the danger is already very real. Smoke is filling the room and has the potential to kill immediately, and the kitchen can be full of it without these systems even so much as making a sound. This is why we think it’s best to avoid a fire in the first place. Fortunately, Unicook has the answer. We have a solution that is perfect for preventing fires, no matter your cooking ability or how distracted you might be when cooking.

The simple fire prevention solution

Airis stove guard installed in a kitchen, protecting the hob from fires and smoke
Airis stove guard prevents fires on the stove

Airis was created to prevent fires in student accommodation without the risk of fire and without affecting normal cooking. It also prevents almost all toxic smoke. The student will never even know Airis is there. A silent protector. Unless of course it has alerted them to a potential fire and saved them and their flatmates from smoke inhalation, fire, or the embarrassment of having set off the central alarm system. It works by monitoring human presence, cooker type, and pan temperature, alerting you when a dangerous situation approaches. If you don’t respond by turning the heat down, then it shuts off the power to the cooker until safety is restored. No false alarms and no fires. Full stop.

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?

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