Sunday, 25 July 2010

A curiosity - school fire escapes made of wood

44 years ago this summer, there was a tragedy waiting to happen in a village in Wales, because nothing had been done about an overloaded slag heap and a water main in a disused canal. It was only a matter of time - actually by October of 1966, when a third factor - so much rain - created a disaster at Aberfan.

"Tip No 7...slipped and descended upon part of the village killing 116 children and 29 adults. The tragedy occurred just after 9 o'clock in the morning under circumstances which apparently precluded the issue of warning." Well, that is the official view of the Cabinet Office in their case study this summer. They describe the rescue at Pantglas Junior School as "near fruitless" and
"the mental scars are so hard to heal, some 40 years after the Aberfan disaster".

Yet the case study makes no mention of prevention or any concerns expressed by professionals or local people before the tragedy.

Here in Reigate in 1966, that event immediately sparked a concern with a teacher at a local primary school that there were no fire escapes for the upstairs classrooms. It only took one person to realise that if something went wrong in the boiler room, there would be no escape since the children's only staircase was directly above it.

What happened next? A letter to the local authority resulted in a terse conversation with an official who reckoned to the effect that "If you make a strong point like this and we have to spend our limited resources on fire escapes then we cannot afford to allocate funds to Redstone Secondary School for much needed playing fields." Fortunately, that intuitive teacher was inspired to reply gently along the lines that there may be less need for playing fields at secondary level if a whole cohort of children were to suffer in a disaster in a primary school with no alternative exit route.

Oh well, this is all history now. I will just divulge that fire escapes were authorised to be installed in this Surrey primary school as a result. The silly thing is that the new fire escape to the upper floor of the Infants department didn't even match up with a suitable door or window (I am told), and would you believe it - what a classic blunder - the fire escapes to the Infants department and the Juniors department were both made of WOOD. This must surely be a local curiosity?

I would like to ask for a bit of common sense and balance in local authorities. This can be achieved, very economically, by listening to employees and local residents who have the courage to voice their concerns and offer some practical suggestions. With modern communications technology and the internet, history might just prove the point as "Lessons Identified" - or even, "Lessons Unidentified".