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Occasionally, a fire-related subject comes out of left-field, sneaking below the radar of fire safety campaigners due to the rarity of the issue arising.
This happened with a burns issue related to children’s fancy dress costumes. The problem is that these items come under the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011 and not the Nightwear (Safety) Regulations 1985 which relates to nightwear warn by children and adults. Back then there was not the proliferation of fancy dress costumes for the likes of Halloween celebrations that there is today.
Even so, the likelihood of occurrence is admittedly small. That, however, does not stop fire safety campaigners from seeking to reduce the risk to the lowest possible level. The issue hit the headlines after TV presenter Claudia Winkleman’s eight-year-old daughter, Matilda, suffered burns while wearing a fancy dress costume. Subsequent Watchdog programmes served to raise the issue further and there has been rapid movement from industry and government.
It was most gratifying to hear from Sainsbury’s, which shortly afterwards issued a statement saying that all children’s dress up sold by the retailer would also meet the British nightwear flammability safety standard. Following the second programme, it was surprising to hear from a government source say that ministers “will investigate ways to make sure that accidents like Matilda’s become a thing of the past”. It offers a stark contrast to the regularly occurring school fires and seeming intransigence over lack of movement following previous Schools Minister Jim Knight’s statement to parliament, where he said that “automatic sprinklers would be installed in ALL new schools, except for a very few low risk schools” from March 2007.
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The Coalition Government did nothing; the current one appears to be following suit (subscribe to September's FIRE for special report on the politics of sprinklers in schools). What struck this reporter – numbed into a forlorn silence while watching local news footage of the latest blaze to have gutted a school on the Isle of Wight – was how short-sighted local authorities are regarding this issue.
Surely it is obvious that the highest risk, softest target for arsonists is a school, or more specifically, their school. As a comprehensive school student I remember fires happening all too frequently. The only reason the whole place didn’t collapse into ashes was due to the ramshackle, disconnected buildings that would obligingly disintegrate without touching the next block. If you were a school governor, would the total destruction of your establishment not be at the top of your risk register?
Awareness and personal responsibility are key ingredients. It was interesting to note the Australian approach to fire safety messaging contrasted with our own as raised at the recent Fire Symposium in Bucks (subscribe to FIRE to read Paul Holland's report on this symposium). Due to geographical difficulties people are encouraged and trusted to look after themselves much more down under. Given potentially crippling budgetary restraints, we may be forced into taking a similar direction. However, government, industry and fire sector stakeholders need to play a pivotal supporting role and step up to the mark, just like they’re doing for children’s fancy dress costumes but for some reason, not their schools.