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Locked-down universities warned against "dangerous" blocking of fire exits

30 September 2020 | last updated: 1 October 2020

Firefighters and education staff have warned universities that it is "dangerous and illegal" to block or lock fire exits, after pictures emerged of a locked fire exit at a student accommodation block in Leeds.

Obstructing fire exits "can, and has, cost lives in the past", the leaders of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and University and College Union (UCU) warned, in a letter to all UK universities, demanding that the safety of students and staff be "absolutely paramount".

An image circulating on social media on Monday night showed cable ties sealing closed the fire exit in Marsden House, a student accommodation block at Leeds Beckett University run by private student housing supplier iQ Student Accommodation.

iQ and Leeds Beckett said the cable ties had been removed after the uproar, but a video posted online later that evening showed tables and chairs now blocking the exit instead.

The unions have thanked West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service for investigating the incident and warned that "any attempts to take shortcuts with regards people's safety must be dealt with swiftly and uncompromisingly".

The FBU and UCU have warned universities that any action to fix shut a fire exit is a breach of the law in every part of the UK and that the "pandemic is no excuse, nor mitigating factor for this sort of action", advising that it is incumbent on universities to ensure outsourced building management and security services understand.

The potential for fire safety breaches in locked-down universities has also been flagged to the Secretary State and devolved ministers.

In November 2019, flames spread rapidly across The Cube student accommodation in Bolton, covered in flammable high-pressure laminate cladding. 200 students were evacuated by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'These worrying fire safety breaches are just another example of why it was so crass of education secretary Gavin Williamson to say universities were well prepared for the developing crisis on our campuses.

'Students must be allowed to return home now if they wish to without fear of financial penalties for leaving their accommodation. Ministers must agree to provide guarantees for lost income and universities must finally put the health of their staff, students and local communities first.'

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: 'We are all taking difficult measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but there is no excuse for dangerous breaches of fire safety legislation as we saw in Leeds. It's illegal to block, lock or obstruct fire exits for a reason - sealed fire exits kill people when a fire breaks out. End of.

'In universities across the country, students are locked in their accommodation. The very least that should be expected of universities or private housing providers is accommodation that complies with regulation. The safety of students must be made paramount at universities - and not just safety from coronavirus. After this incident, we are urging all universities across the UK to carry out urgent fire safety checks.'

 

* Full letter

As the representatives of 33,000 firefighters and emergency control staff, and 121,000 education staff, we are writing to remind universities across the UK of their duty towards the safety of their students and employees.

On 28 September 2020 an image circulated on social media which showed that at Marsden House, a Leeds Beckett halls of residence, cable ties had been used to fix a fire exit shut. Leeds Beckett, and later iQ Student Accommodation who manage the site, confirmed that the ties had been removed. We are grateful for the swift action of West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service who followed up the matter with urgency.

However, we would like to put on record our major concerns about this practice at Leeds Beckett and wish to warn all Universities in the UK in no uncertain terms that blocking, locking or impeding fire exits is both dangerous and illegal - to be clear, the pandemic is no excuse, nor mitigating factor for this sort of action.

To remind you, the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order (England and Wales, 2005), states:

Where necessary in order to safeguard the safety of relevant persons, the responsible person must ensure that routes to emergency exits from premises and the exits themselves are kept clear at all times; and

Emergency doors must not be so locked or fastened that they cannot be easily and immediately opened by any person who may require to use them in an emergency;

Similar legislation applies in both Scotland, The Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006, and in Northern Ireland, The Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010.

It is therefore clear that any action taken to lock or fix a fire exit shut is in breach of these orders, as would be any other attempts to block or impede exit through it. This can, and has, cost lives in the past.

The safety of students and staff should be absolutely paramount and it is incumbent on Universities to ensure that the myriad of outsourced building management and security services understand their responsibilities. Any attempts to take shortcuts with regards people's safety must be dealt with swiftly and uncompromisingly.

We have seen in recent years the devastation that fires can cause in residential properties. The Bolton Cube fire in 2019 required the urgent evacuation of 200 students by Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. Lives could indeed have been lost had safety routes been blocked or locked.

With thousands of students now in university, many of whom are being asked to isolate, we are now urging universities to conduct urgent fire safety checks on all of their premises. Spending more time in residential settings can increase the risk of fire and so these checks should not be limited to fire exits but also include checks on fire doors, alarms, and ease of escape for students and staff with accessibility issues.

The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which cost the lives of 72 people, demonstrated the disastrous consequences if they are not implemented properly - we cannot allow a disaster like this to occur in student accommodation, nor allow corporate entities to again so blatantly disregard the welfare of the public.

Our thoughts at this point are especially with students and staff in universities across the UK.

We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence in unsafe conditions, with no familiar support network, basic supplies or pastoral care and we should not have staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home. Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to and without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.

Ministers need to issue clear guidance on health and safety on campus to all universities, UCU called for this at the start of the pandemic. If ministers had listened then, universities could have worked together to work out ways to handle the crisis and prepare properly for students' return with Health and safety the number one concern.

A copy of this letter is being sent to the Secretary of State in Westminster as well as the Ministers responsible in the devolved nations.

Yours sincerely

Jo Grady, University and College Union general secretary

Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary

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