Unsafe school build raises questions about others

Fire safety controversies have blighted apartment blocks and now a school, prompting Fiachra Ó Cionnaith to ask where go from here

First it was Priory Hall. Last week it was Longboat Quay. Today it is a school which posed serious fire safety risks to more than 200 children and staff for six years. It is legitimate to ask: Where to next?

Details revealed in today’s Irish Examiner show that despite the renewed focus on Celtic Tiger-era apartment fire safety issues in recent days, Government has been aware for over a year that the serious problems are — in at least one case — not limited to just a single part of the construction sector.

From cavity walls not being in place to reduce the speed of a fire spreading, to steel girders not being covered in special intumescent paint strips to ensure they could withstand extreme heat for longer, to the knock-on effect that the time available for safe evacuations during a fire was drastically reduced, the same issues have been repeated.

This time it is a school and not an apartment complex taking centre stage, with taxpayers replacing apartment owners in being controversially left to pick up the substantial tab.

And while it may come as a surprise to the general public, correspondence shows the Department of Education — and Government — have been fully aware of the issue for a year, meaning questions now need to be asked about how many other buildings in use from the period pose similar problems which have to date remained hidden from view.

In summer 2008, just as the Celtic Tiger was coming to an end, the Department of Education handed over a newly built school to the multi-denominational group Educate Together.

The Rush and Lusk Educate Together national school — built by Western Building Systems from Coalisland in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, at the request of the department — was meant to act as a temporary building for the organisation before another facility was found.

However, due in part to the subsequent economic crash, the longer-term solution never materialised.

After being told in early 2014 that the short-term location was now a long-term home, the board of the school — which had used the facility for the past six years to teach more than 200 children — reluctantly accepted the decision and sought an independent architect’s report to address issues such as the leaking roof and windows in its now permanent home.

The response instead warned of serious fire safety issues linked to the building’s structure, including the lack of cavity barriers within walls to prevent a fire from spreading; steel girders which were not coated with intumescent paint to protect the structure of the building when faced with intense heat; the storage of combustible material in escape routes; and inadequate “fire stopping” on fire resistant doors to prevent smoke seeping through during a blaze.

After discussions with the Department of Education, Dublin Fire Brigade was called in to examine the problems.

In a letter to the school’s board in early June 2014, it warned the issue was a “matter of urgency” and that if the issues were not addressed immediately, the standard 60-minute period for a safe evacuation during a fire would be cut to just 20 minutes.

On foot of the Dublin Fire Brigade warning, the Department of Education said in a statement it commissioned its own architect’s report which involved “an extensive and invasive survey of the school” and backed up the concerns.

While the issues were, thankfully, fully resolved, the department needed to spend €800,000 addressing the serious shortfalls in the building’s safety — money which could otherwise have been made available for other vital nationwide school improvements.

However, it has to date declined to clarify how many other schools, if any, built during the boom are also affected by an issue that has previously been seen as confined to apartment blocks.

The latest building scandal and Celtic Tiger ghost comes to light as the ongoing Longboat Quay controversy — which could ultimately cost apartment owners damaged by the crisis a combined €4m — continues to cause consternation.

It also comes after Nama’s Oireachtas public accounts committee admission last Thursday that it has spent more than €100m in taxpayers’ money to fix fire trap facilities built during the boom.

In many ways, what happened at the Rush and Lusk facility is simply the latest case to add to the list that first began with Priory Hall, something that is just an accepted by-product of the boom after it went bust.

But in a key way, it is different. At least one school is now involved. Children were at risk, unknowingly, for six years, with the danger only identified by accident after an examination of completely different concerns over the building.

For those pressing for answers over fire safety issues in Celtic Tiger-era buildings, it is the clearest example yet that a full examination of the scale of the problem is needed. Where to next, indeed.

Editorial: 12

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