Q&A: How to stay safe from fire, with Avon Fire and Rescue

19 Oct 2021
By Jade P., Student at University of Gloucestershire

When I started my summer internship at Unite Students, I never expected to leave with a deep respect for fire safety. But that’s exactly what happened - courtesy of a day spent with Blue Watch at Bristol’s Temple Fire Station.

Smoke-filled rooms, heat-seeking cameras, 100 ft ladders, a ride along - you can read all about my life-changing day here.

Make sure you don’t get distracted when you’re cooking.

I asked Watch Manager Jon Clatworthy and Firefighter Chris Crothers how students like us can stay safe from fire in uni accommodation. Here’s what they said.

What’s the most common cause of fire in student accommodation?

Jon: To be honest, most of it’s cooking related. We’ve had quite a few where somebody’s either forgotten they’re cooking and got distracted, or they thought they could cook when they came home drunk. They put something on and then fall asleep.

We also had quite a severe fire earlier this year that was caused by a charger.

As somebody who lives in student halls, how can I prevent these fires?

Jon: Make sure you don’t get distracted when you’re cooking. We really discourage people from using deep fat fryers. But if you have to, get a modern electric one - they’ve got timers and heat sensors and you shouldn’t have any problems with those.

We see a lot of fire doors being propped open. As you saw today in the smoke-filled room, smoke travels very quickly and if the doors are propped open it will fill every room. So please do keep the doors shut - especially to your kitchen and your bedroom.

If everybody could see what you saw today, with the speed that smoke can travel and how it can enter every little crevice, they’d appreciate how much protection just one door will give them.

Sometimes it can feel like our alarms are constantly going off. Do you get called to a lot of false alarms?

Jon: When somebody sets off a fire alarm for no good reason, we call that a ‘malicious activation’. We’ve worked closely with the student unions and we don’t get too many of those anymore.

The false alarms we do get are for cooking and other accidents - spraying deodorant too close to a smoke detector can set it off. When you’re sharing your home with lots of other people, all it takes is for someone to burn a piece of toast and set the alarm off.

Accidents happen and we don’t see false alarms as a problem, necessarily. The most important thing is that nobody gets hurt. But there is a cost. We’ll typically send 15 firefighters on three trucks, and that takes us away from other emergencies.

Chris: 81% of the calls we attend at student halls are false alarms. There’s a big spike between September and November as new students get used to the kitchens and fire safety procedures.

The best advice is, if you know an alarm’s going off somewhere and you’re unsure, just make your way out of the building through the nearest fire exit and wait for information.

Make sure you don’t get distracted when you’re cooking.
81% of the calls we attend at student halls are false alarms.

Frying pans. What should I do if mine catches fire?

Jon: The first thing you need to do is turn off the heat. Then, put a damp towel over it if you can. Make sure the towel isn't too wet or it will react with the oil. But don’t try to tackle anything you think is too difficult. Just get out, shut the doors, and raise the alarm.

Finally, can you tell us how high-rise student buildings are protected from fire?

Chris: It’s all done at the architectural design stage. Our technical fire safety team monitors the early development of buildings to make sure they comply with the law.

Then you’ll have fire engineers who work with the architects, and their job is to make sure smoke and fire can’t travel. They add features like smoke vents that open automatically, fire breaks between certain areas of the building, fire doors in specific places. All that’s built in.

Once a building’s constructed, we do routine safety visits to familiarise ourselves with it. We come up with a plan to evacuate and safely extinguish fires when they happen.

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Jade is second year Business and Marketing Management student studying at the University of Gloucestershire.