Installation is only a third of the job

Issue 2 2022 Education (Industry)

Student accommodation is big business these days, but just as any other business premises, student accommodation has specific fire and safety requirements that need to be considered. More than merely having the required equipment installed, student accommodation also has additional challenges.

Michael van Niekerk.

The regulations pertaining to student accommodation depend on the size of the building, the number of students housed, as well as the living situation, says Michael van Niekerk, CEO of ASP Fire. For example, if students share rooms, it is considered a dormitory, which will have different file and safety regulations than places with single person units.

The statutory requirements include the usual requirements of having the requisite number of extinguishers, fire hydrants, detection and suppression technology, as well as escape routes – if there are more than 25 people housed, there needs to be two escape routes. Additionally, tall buildings need to provide fire water for its hydrants, even if it is connected to the municipal supply.

Student realities

Van Niekerk says the basic requirements are the ability to detect fire and/or smoke as soon as possible, alert all the residents and extract them safely. However, when dealing with students, an additional challenge is that students act like students and often have fun setting off fire alarms at strange hours and vandalising equipment. This means regular inspections and maintenance to ensure this life-saving equipment is in working order.

Van Niekerk says equipment needs to be tested each week. In fact, he believes the installation part of the project is only one-third of the job, no matter which type of building the fire safety equipment is installed in. Ongoing maintenance and testing are more important. Partially, this is because building student accommodation is expensive and owners don’t like to spend large amounts of money as it will take some time to recoup their investment.

Once certified, the fire systems are left alone to save on maintenance costs, which can have dire consequences as students at the University of Cape Town discovered. A lack of maintenance saves money in the short term, but can cost much more over time.

The benefits of insurance

One of the problems of lack of maintenance and testing is that insurance companies are becoming stricter and pay-outs may not be forthcoming for sub-standard and/or non-maintained fire safety equipment. Moreover, at the end of the day, the owner of the building is responsible, even if they pay others to manage the building and the students. The same applies to educational institutions that offer accommodation.

Maintenance is not only about technology, but also includes fire drills. Students need to know what to do in case of a fire (students from rural areas may have no idea what to do in a large building if there is a fire). In an emergency there is no time to read signs on the walls. More importantly, in buildings that house disabled people, if the elevators don’t work in a fire emergency, there needs to be a safe refuge for the disabled where they will be safe until the emergency services arrive.

This article has mentioned only a few points on fire safety for student accommodation, in reality there are many regulatory stipulations owners need to adhere to. Certified professionals are required to assist in making sure these environments are up to standard in terms of fire safety standards and continuously maintained.


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