Keeping our Schools Fire Ready – What you Need to Know

The start of school is marked by excitement and anticipation of the challenges in the year ahead. Invariably, high temperatures are the backdrop to this time of beginnings and possibilities.

For schools in areas at risk of bushfire, it is also means heightened awareness and readiness to ensure the safety of students, staff, parents and visitors.

Like other schools, Independent schools located in areas deemed to be at risk from bushfires are on the Bushfire At-Risk Register.

The listing of schools on the register means schools are required to meet several conditions: they have to close and school buses won’t run when a Code Red is declared in the area, as well as having Emergency Management Plans in place. Schools on the list must each year submit their plans for approval by authorities.

The register – which covers schools, kindergartens and childcare facilities – includes close to 40 Independent schools and facilities, such as school camps.

And it is not just schools in regional and rural areas – many are located in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Schools on the register must demonstrate a heightened state of readiness, have open lines of communication with local emergency services, and be ready to relocate students and staff to a nominated shelter or evacuation area.

One of the most important requirements is closure when a Code Red Day has been declared by the Emergency Management Commissioner.

Under Victoria’s fire rating system, a Code Red day means that these are the worst conditions for a bush or grass fire.

Buildings are not designed or constructed to withstand fires in these conditions, and the safest place is to be away from a high risk bushfire area.

Fire ratings are forecast for four days, and where possible, parents will be given up to three days notice of a Code Red closure.

The decision will be confirmed by 1.00 pm the day before the planned closures, and even if the weather improves, the decision will not be changed.

It is important to note that Code Red days are relatively few – the last in Victoria was in 2010. But there may also be instances where the fire rating is at the lower levels of Extreme or Severe, where schools may decide to take action under their emergency plan – including closing, given the circumstances.

‘Parents need to be aware that any school in a fire prone area, including those on the urban fringe, may be affected by bushfires or grassfires’, says Peter Roberts, Director, School Services at Independent Schools Victoria, ‘and it is important for schools and their communities to be alert to the dangers of these fires.’

‘This is particularly important if a fire emergency occurs around the end of the school day as buses and other forms of transport could be affected.’

Part of being fire ready is a close relationship between schools and local emergency services. The Country Fire Authority says it continues to work closely with schools in high fire risk areas, as well as having specific fire safety education programs available to schools.

A CFA spokesman says that the authority is working with schools to develop a ‘relationship of shared responsibility’.

This involves the CFA, schools and local communities promoting fire safety education and emergency preparedness to make schools and school communities safer from the risk of fire.

The CFA also encourages communities, parents, schools and students to be actively involved in learning about the risks of fire – and the steps that can be taken to prepare and respond safely.  The latest fire safety information is on the CFA website.

Photo: Courtesy of CFA Communities & Communication