I have been in many jails and prisons. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a facility during or immediately after a fire, even a small one. But I’ve seen videos, news reports, and analyses of facility fires with fatalities. When you review all these resources, there is one significant conclusion: bad things happened because “things” (buildings and physical systems) and people don’t function as they expected. The goal of a fire safety plan, which includes realistic fire evacuation drills, is to practice as much as possible before an emergency occurs so that both staff and the physical systems perform as they should.
While many fire sources/causes are arson (24%), usually ignited by inmates in cells and housing areas, additional locations are the kitchen (26%) and laundry (19%). Both have potential ignition sources, combustible load, and, of course, air: Stoves and burners in the kitchen, and the dryers in the laundry. What your mother told you is true: clean the lint trap in the dryer every time after use. Gas dryers effectively bring all three components of the fire triangle together.
It is a good practice to limit ignition sources and combustible load where ever possible. Going smokeless made your fire marshal very happy, but since your facility is staffed and occupied by people, you can never know for sure what random ignition sources might be in your building.
Smoke: A major problem is smoke. It causes panic. All of a sudden you can’t see things. You also are focused on breathing not performing. You can’t remember the last time you put on an air pack but became shocked when you “breathed it out” so quickly when there was that small fire in a utility area: breathing becomes uncontrolled in a panic situation. Staff can compound the problem by going in to housing areas but become another person in need of evacuation either due to not wearing an air pack or breathing it out. The solution: if your fire authority having jurisdiction has approved staff use of air packs for evacuating inmates, realistic training and drills wearing them will teach that you won’t see well with the mask on and you probably won’t breath normally. As the result of drills and training, staff will immediately become aware of the value of the buddy system. During drills, make the air mask more difficult to see through to simulate actual smoke conditions, and reduce lighting in the drill locations.
The air handling system is supposed to close dampers, and contain the smoke in singular areas. How do you really know that is true? The vendor probably certified it, but the time to find out would not be during an actual fire. If you want to know if the air handling system will close dampers and contain smoke in a specific smoke compartment, you should test that. And test it when you are only being powered by the emergency generator.
Have you coordinated with the local fire service to assure that their large smoke evacuation fans can be placed in your facility at the right places, and with the correct electrical connections? Has that been accomplished during one of your fire drills?
You have that huge emergency power generator behind the building which you probably test monthly. Have you switched it over to run the jail when you conduct a fire evacuation drill so staff (and offenders) become aware of lighting levels, and know which building systems remain powered by it?
Heat: Generally heat doesn’t cause fatalities, smoke does. But heat causes building systems to malfunction, which can lead to fatalities. Heat causes metal to expand. Guess what happens to locking mechanisms that were installed with close tolerances? They can bind up. Same with doors, access panels, etc. So you have electric or pneumatic locks with key override. if the lock expands and binds, what is that key going to do? As part of drills, have staff face a major door that now won’t open, forcing them to find an alternative route or a solution to opening the door.
Staff Performance: Staff tend to want to do the right thing, especially in emergencies. There is an apocryphal story about a major jail fire where a staff member grabbed the master key set, ran into the core of the facility (without an air pack) to evacuate the inmates, had a heart attack, and fell on the master key set. Of course, then nobody could find the master key set. Another story has to do with staff breaking off those big old style Folger-Adams (or Southern Steel) keys in locks (due to adrenalin rush) effectively disabling the lock. (That’s why you want to inspect those keys routinely for cracks.)
“But Our Building is Fire-Proof”: Anything will burn if it gets hot enough. Don’t think of your facility as fire-proof: that is faulty thinking. You’ve got furnishings, fixtures, paint, supplies, chemicals, and people in your facility. Even if you’ve done all you can to reduce the combustible load in housing units and minimized ignition sources, you can’t eliminate oxygen. So things can ignite and burn.
Fire prevention and the development of a fire plan is a topic for another day. Today, let’s focus on fire drills. The goal is to evacuate offenders from danger to “an area of refuge”. The fire authority having jurisdiction can help you define your areas of refuge. That entity can also discuss with you a “defend in place strategy” as one option. However, at some point, evacuation of some, many, or all housing units might become a reality, so that is what you practice in fire drills.
One of the goals of emergency drills is to make an un-natural situation more natural so that staff (and offenders) behavior is as normal as possible given an emergency situation.
Good correctional practice as well as the American Correctional Association accreditation standards suggest that fire drills be conducted at least quarterly in all facility locations, on every shift, including administrative areas. An announced drill is really not a drill: unannounced is the real test. Also, if you only drill during the daytime, but fires occur at night, you are not preparing staff to react effectively. Think about your night staffing pattern? Fewer staff but the same number of inmates as during the day.
Drills are really a form of hands-on training, so make sure they are well documented. Always have a written drill scenario. The first few drills can be “routine”, but since there is no such thing as a normal emergency, there should be no such thing as a normal drill. Craft each drill scenario so that staff have an unexpected, but realistic, problem to solve: an inmate who refuses to move, a blocked fire exit, a non-functioning door, the missing emergency key set, etc.
If the goal of evacuation is to move inmates, inmates (who do not constitute a security/safety threat) should actually be moved during most drills. How else can staff actually practice moving inmates? For special management areas, you can always use volunteers as inmates.
As always, get your fire marshal or fire authority having jurisdiction involved in your drill planning as well as perhaps serving as an evaluator during drills. It is also good to have the responding fire-fighting entity participate in some drills. They need to learn how to gain access, bring in equipment, and operate within your building.
Conduct a formal debriefing after the drill. That is where you confirm that learning has occurred. Video as much of the drill as possible. Staff might be amazed at what they thought they did versus what they see on a video.
National fire Prevention Association (NFPA):
Deadliest Jail/Prison Fires in the US
Twenty-Nine Die in Biloxi, Mississippi Jail fire
Prison and Jail fire Fact Sheet and Statistics Sheet
The Ohio State Penitentiary Fire
American for Effective Law Enforcement (AELE)
Jail and Prison Fires Case Law Summaries
Legal Aspects of Jail and Prison Fires
Sheriff! Your Jail is on Fire!
This Day in History/history.com (April 21, 1930 - The Ohio State Penitentiary Fire)
Prisoners left to burn in Ohio fire
Are You ready? Prison and Jail emergencies
Points of view or opinions stated in this blog are those of the authors and
do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of
the U.S. Department of Justice.