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Immediate evacuation is often the appropriate response in case of a fire emergency, but correctional facilities are built on the premise of keeping inmates inside. Such is the apparent conflict, when it comes to responding to a fire in a prison, jail or correctional facility.

Fire safety challenges

The unique characteristics of a correctional setting present challenges in case of fire. For example, how can locked doors be consistent with the need for easy egress in case of fire? Because doors along a likely exit route are locked, guards or other personnel must be stationed along the exit route and trained to perform evacuation procedures.

Rather than moving prisoners outside the facility, the usual strategy is ‘protect in place’, that is, to direct inmates from an area impacted by a fire to a safer area, somewhere else inside the facility.

Placement of smoke detectors and sprinklers

Another common precaution to promote fire safety is placement of smoke detectors and/or sprinklers

Another common precaution to promote fire safety is placement of smoke detectors and/or sprinklers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require such devices be installed and regularly tested in a correctional setting. However, the devices must be located strategically to minimize tampering by bored or frustrated prisoners, and/or protected by stainless steel coverings.

Sadly, sprinklers are often employed by prisoners as an anchor from which to hang themselves. To offset the problem, sprinklers can be specially designed to release, when certain poundage of pulling force is applied, although the solution adds costs.

Fire incidents in smaller areas in prisons

Correctional facilities are constructed primarily of concrete and steel, which are not conducive to fire or its spread. Therefore, fires in correctional facilities are often contained to smaller areas. In fact, the majority of fires occur inside the cells, often deliberately set by inmates. Many likely go undetected and unreported.

An inmate might set a fire to draw attention, to exact revenge or intimidation, to protest overcrowding or living conditions, or even to commit suicide. Setting a fire may even be seen as a means to relieve stress or boredom for the inmates. A fire may also be accidental, for example, it might occur from smoking in bed.  

Most fire incidents inside cells involve ordinary combustibles, such as clothing, books, or trash items, in other words, they are a Class A fire. Other sources of fires in prisons include clothes dryers, cooking, and electrical and heating malfunctions. Dry chemical fire extinguishers can be used to tackle these Class A, B, and C fires.

Electronic and control mechanisms for fire safety

Correctional facilities deploy electronic and control mechanisms for fire safety

Correctional facilities deploy electronic and control mechanisms for fire safety, in order to be able to open and close doors, and to provide immediate detection of a fire point or zone. However, the controls for these systems must be kept in a secure location, and someone onsite must be able to maintain the systems, in case they need to be repaired or reprogrammed.

Early fire detection and notification enables control of inmates during fire response. Prison officials should also be trained on how to use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), fire extinguishers and other fire safety equipment.

Maintaining fire equipment and systems

Maintaining fire equipment and systems is also necessary. However, documents recently released by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice point to on-going lapses in fire equipment maintenance in correctional facilities.

Issues such as rotten fire doors and missing fire extinguishers in U.K. prisons had gone unaddressed for months or years. More than 400 basic fire safety repairs had not been completed, even six months after they were first identified.

Backlog of repairs in prison buildings

The National Audit Office identified a £1 billion backlog of repairs needed to prison buildings in England and Wales and a £315 million one-time allocation to tackle outstanding maintenance work, which was deemed too small to make a dent in the backlog.

According to a report in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Prison Service took 1,100 cells out of use, after a fire safety review and then brought 700 of the cells back into use within weeks.

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Larry Anderson Editor,, Notting Hill Media

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