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CROSS Safety Report

Potential overcrowding in education premises

Report ID: 1202 Published: 21 August 2023 Region: CROSS-UK


A reporter expresses concern about the potential for greater occupancy numbers than planned for in education premises. Means of escape provision may not account for peak occupancy figures due to the nature of a building's use.

Key Learning Outcomes

For designers and fire engineers:

  • Ensure means of escape provisions for lecture theatres account for peak occupancy figures at changeovers
  • Do not merely rely on floor space factors or numbers of seats, without further consideration

For owners/managers of educational establishments:

  • Check that peak occupancy for lecture theatres as given in fire safety documentation, such as a fire risk assessment, is not exceeded during changeovers

Full Report

Find out more about the Full Report

The Full Report below has been submitted to CROSS and describes the reporter’s experience. The text has been edited for clarity and to ensure anonymity and confidentiality by removing any identifiable details. If you would like to know more about our secure reporting process or submit a report yourself, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.


The reporter expresses concern about overcrowding in a new building, with a fire strategy written by a fire safety consultant. The reporter is responsible for managing the fire safety of the building and they are concerned that the building is not designed to accommodate the number of people accessing it.

The reporter is concerned that the building is overcrowded during the regular lecture changeovers and has an occupancy greater than the designed capacity from the fire safety strategy. This could cause delays in evacuation, causing an increased risk to the building occupants with slower than normal evacuation times.

The reporter expresses a view that fire safety guidance within Approved Document B and BS 9999 does not consider the specific occupancy of various university buildings. The standard routes of calculating capacity are either; counting the seating within the building; using an agreed capacity from the client; or using a floor space factor.

for a period of up to 20 minutes every 60 minutes the building could be overcapacity in terms of its design

As these design guidance documents do not consider lecture theatre/seminar change over periods, and this factor may be omitted by the university clients who may rely on advice from a competent fire safety professional for the fire strategy, it may be overlooked. It also may not occur to the fire engineer designing the building, who is following the fire safety advice provided to them in the guidance documents. This means for a period of up to 20 minutes every 60 minutes the building could be overcapacity in terms of its design.

Universities can be different from other educational institutions in that the students may study in several different buildings and therefore, unlike schools, the total occupancy of the building cannot be considered to be just the number of seats. Therefore, during changeover periods between lectures, often for 5-10 minutes before the changeover and 5-10 minutes after, the building may potentially be at twice the design capacity.

A simple solution for universities would be to manage this, however, this necessitates timetable changes to stagger lecture times and poses its own challenges which may be insurmountable - such as scheduling of lecturers and lecture theatre availability.

However, fire engineers should consider the potential for increased capacity so that additional fire safety measures or increased escape widths could be built into the design

It might be considered disproportionate to design escape routes to be twice the size to accommodate the increase in capacity for these periods, as the duration of the overcrowding can vary depending on the time of year and the occupancy of the building. However, fire engineers should consider the potential for increased capacity so that additional fire safety measures or increased escape widths could be built into the design, if necessary.

Greater awareness from universities about the nature of occupancies in their buildings will help them better brief the fire engineer, which in turn will assist the designer in creating a safe design for the building.

Expert Panel Comments

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Expert Panels comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-UK Expert Panels page.

The reporter raises a valid point that should be considered as part of the design process with involvement from owners and managers on how the premises are to be used ultimately. This is valid for its primary use as reported where this issue could have easily been identified and then addressed, as well as secondary uses where premises diversify. For example, it is quite common for educational premises to rent out spaces for evening classes and other alternative uses. All too often we see premises being deemed to be compliant with the functional requirements of the building regulations (as amended) because they have followed, without question, the prescriptive guidance of their choice, with no cooperation or communication with the end users. The occupiers are then presented with premises that may or may not be fit for their use. 

Now the reporter's concern has been identified, this should be raised with the responsible person for the premises and must be assessed and recorded by a competent person in the fire risk assessment under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, with any temporary and remedial actions implemented. In general terms this could affect other universities and CROSS would welcome any other examples of this practice.

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