Learning from tragedy
Remember the massive blaze that broke out at a coaching centre in Surat one year ago? The incident1 claimed lives of nearly 20 students. Disturbing visuals that went viral across the internet showed some students jumping off the multi-storey building of the institute in a desperate attempt to escape the fire. Investigations that followed revealed that the building lacked the statutory permission including those related to fire safety.
“There was no escape route available for the students who got trapped on the top floors,” said a fire official. Neither any safety equipment was reportedly installed in the building.
This was not a one-off incident. An audit of the Kota fire safety department2 that was conducted soon after the Surat tragedy found that as many as 90% of buildings of coaching institutes and hostels across the city, barring a few big ones, did not have adequate fire safety arrangements. Fire incidents were not uncommon in these hostels.
Now, imagine what would be the consequences of such incidents if they happened in a school. The sheer thought of it sends chills down the spine – isn’t it? With small children all around, the schools are supposed to be the safest place on earth.
Therefore it is an appropriate time to place more importance on the health & safety issue of educational institutes of our country and make inspection a compulsory and regular affair in schools.
Key Inspection-worthy Areas in a School
From school gate to the classrooms, from staircase to the bathrooms – each and every accessible area in a school needs to be inspected at regular intervals.
1. Main gate
The most important part of an educational building – the gate is a symbol of many things, many emotions. It is the entryway to the world of knowledge and character-building. From the security point of view, it is the gate that restricts the access to unauthorized individuals and helps maintain internal discipline. Therefore, it must be strong enough and conform to the guidelines set by the National School Safety Council for prevention of any external and internal threat.
Inspection in a school checks for the following aspects of the main gate:
- The material it is made of and hence, the strength to withstand environmental challenges
- The strength to safeguard the school children and staff against any undesired mob
- The locking system and if that is child-proof
- The hinges and the wheels (if any)
The steps should not be too steep but wide enough to enable students to stand properly when in a queue. The handrails should be strong and continuous, with rounded edges. The railings of the staircase should not be too widely spaced as small children may weld their heads between them by mistake and get stuck or fall off accidentally through them while running up and down.
3. Walls – Interior & Exterior
“A school is a building that has four walls… with tomorrow inside.” – So, you know how important it is to have walls that are strong, clean, and hygienic?
A school authority must be careful about maintaining them right from the completion of construction. The exterior paint must have weather coat to withstand environmental stresses. The interior wall paint should ideally be dust-resistant and environmental friendly. Any crack on the wall must come under the scanner because you never know if it is a normal one that has happened due to settling of the structure on the foundation or something to worry about. There are many causes behind cracks and only trained professionals can identify them and suggest action. Whatever be the reason, cracks, if left unattended, may lead to seepage in the long term or accumulation of dirt and microorganisms.
Another sign of bad health of walls is the presence of watermarks or damp on it. Flaky paint is also a common symptom. Again, there can be multiple reasons behind damp. Only a professional inspection service can pinpoint the exact reason. School authorities must look into that reason and act on it with a sense of urgency.
Dampness makes wall structure weak from within and triggers growth of microorganisms thereby leading to the deterioration of internal air quality. Damp leads to unhealthy conditions and threats of disease.
The condition of the ceiling in every floor in a school building is as important as the walls. On rare occasion, it may sag due to panels loosening or pulling away of the plaster coats. There can be other structural problems like overloading of a ceiling joint. Or, it could be something more common such as a leak which is causing fast deterioration. Any problem in the ceiling if not addressed in time may lead to a major accident. Plus, damp has its own bad effects on health too. So, inspection must be carried out occasionally, especially before & after monsoon, to check for any issues that may later become a cause of concern.
Roof, though not kept accessible for the students, must also be checked during inspection for any cracks, waterproofing related problem, etc.
Floor, apparently a safe part of a building, can become a major cause of accident in school. The authority must remain careful about its slipperiness. It should be mopped and cleaned daily. Also, the right level of friction must be maintained to do away with any slips, trips, and falls. Hollow or broken tiles if any should be located and repaired or replaced depending upon the defect.
6. Doors and Windows
Strong, well-fitted doors and windows are a bare minimum thing in a school building. They must open and close properly, make no unusual noise, and should not let in rainwater or wind (windows) when closed due to sealant deterioration or improper installation. Locking system of the doors should be differently chosen. On classroom doors, the latches should be at a particular height, beyond the reach of the small children. In case of bathrooms, the doors must have an easy locking system so that no student can accidentally lock himself/ herself up.
The five major parts of a school’s plumbing are: Water Storage, Water Supply, Fixtures (in bathrooms, pantry, drinking water bay, canteen, etc.), Sewage, and Septic System. All these five parts should be maintained properly. Even the minutest of leakage or clog can lead to a major disruption. But the challenge with plumbing maintenance is most of the problems arise in places that are out of sight – under the floor, behind the walls, below the tank, etc. So, they are difficult to detect until they start to manifest somewhere else. Only trained inspectors who are equipped with advanced technology tools can track them and suggest the right solution.
8. Overall electrical safety
The electrical system of a school can be compared to the body’s nervous system with the panel box acting as the brain and power lines acting as nerves branching out from it and running throughout the building. There are other parts as well such as fuses or circuit breakers, switches, regulators, and so on. A problem in any part of this extensive system can either lead to a major power failure or a fire incident. Possibilities of shocks can also not be ruled out. So, it is crucial to keep the entire electrical system under check and in proper condition 24X7.
9. Fire safety
Although not a structural issue, an inspection service in school would cover this as it is integral to the safety of the school children and staff. The important fire safety measures that should be taken by the school are:
- Adequate number of fire extinguishers installed at strategic areas
- More than one emergency exits
- Map evacuation routes
- Access to alarms
- Access to the terrace or balcony at the time of a fire outbreak
- Regular practising of fire drills
10. Other structures and passages
A school building has other areas and different supporting structures such as shades, columns, and stage, etc. Small passages are also there to facilitate easy movement and connectivity. All these structures and passages must be checked at regular intervals for any cracks, damp, and other related damage issues and repaired immediately.
School maintenance is an organizational activity that is carried out by the authority. To make it more effective, property inspection must be made a regular programme. It will not only enhance the health, safety and security of the premises but will also improve the overall delivery of education to a significant extent.