CALLS are being made for an inquiry into the major fire that gutted the creative arts block and theatre at Lytchett Minster School.

Questions have been asked about the hour’s delay between the start of the blaze and the fire service being alerted; poor water pressure on the site; and the lack of an automatic sprinkler system in the building because of the way it was designed.

Fred Drane, Liberal Democrat county councillor for the area, said: “Dorset County Council should have an internal inquiry, then if members of the Liberal Democrat group are not happy with it, we want it to go public. When they rebuild, they ought to be putting in sprinkler system.”

Annette Brooke, MP for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, said: “There must be an inquiry. This is not the time for penny-pinching Millions of pounds shouldn’t be spent on new school buildings without making sure money is allocated for sprinklers.”

Stewart Kidd, spokesman for the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, said: “There are schools being built today of materials that I wouldn’t use to construct a garden shed.

“Smoke detectors go off in about 20 seconds and sprinklers about two minutes later, allowing your fire brigade to get there and fight a fire of manageable size.

“A sprinkler system would have contained the fire to a much more restricted area. The building wouldn’t have been destroyed.”

The fire at Lytchett Minster School started when lightning struck the roof just before 6.02am on December 27, but Dorset Fire and Rescue Service was not alerted until 7.07am, by a 999 call from a mobile telephone. The first crew arrived on the scene in 15 minutes, but initially struggled with low water pressure and volume. Wessex Water increased the pressure and bowsers were used to boost supply.

Former district councillor Mike Fry, of Upton, who was at the site at 7.30am, said: “The fire appeared relatively small. It continues to surprise me how it could have spread so quickly, destroying a modern building.”

Wessex Water says that in cases where buildings were some distance from the nearest hydrant, as was the case with the arts block, developers could pay for a water main to be put in as a feed. This had not been done at the school.

Mike Harries, Dorset County Council's head of property, said: “To respond to a fire, water quantity is more important than water pressure and it is our understanding that Dorset Fire and Rescue Service was happy with the provision of water and hydrants at the school.

“The water pressure available was insufficient for sprinklers to operate effectively, so they were not installed. However, the nature of the lightning strike and the fact that the fire started on the roof, together with the high ceiling heights in much of the building, means that it is unlikely sprinklers would have been effective in this instance.

“A fire alarm system was installed in the building and was linked to a monitoring organisation which would then inform the fire service. We understand the alarm system, along with other electrical installations, were destroyed by the lightning strike.”

The county council is working with the school and the insurers to agree how much immediate demolition work needs to be carried out.

Brigade chief backs sprinklers

Dorset’s Chief Fire Officer Darran Gunter, said: “This school does not have sprinklers. We would strongly encourage all local authorities in the planning stages to consider the benefit of including sprinklers in school premises.

“It must, however, be remembered that sprinklers are designed to suppress fires that generally start in occupied and high risk rooms. It is unlikely that if sprinklers were installed that they would have been installed in the internal roof compartment.”

The official fire investigation report is expected within the next month and will be made public.