Sheriff! Your Jail Is On Fire!

This article seeks to enlighten readers on prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery steps that should be considered to confront jail fires.


From a cost-effective and efficiency standpoint, preventing contraband from ever entering the jail is Job Number One. There are so many ways that drugs, weapons, cell phones, and fire starting materials can get into the jail. Booking prisoners, visitors, jail officers, vendors and contractors, people seeking to aid an inmate by throwing items over the security fence into the exercise yard, inmates interacting with people during court, and medical appearances all increase the chances of contraband getting in the jail.

Searching, searching, and searching some more is clearly desirable. In today's economic times, it is sometimes easier to write a policy than achieve it. Layoffs, furloughs, staffing shortages, training, scheduled vacations, and unscheduled sick time can all frustrate even the best-intentioned security plans. In the end, sheriffs must strive to plan their work and then work that plan to control what items get into their facilities.

The initial booking procedures must be well planned and comprehensive. Once you work out an organized process for booking inmates then follow those procedures. Whether an arriving prisoner is a career felon, intoxicated high school football coach, or off-duty public safety officer arrested for domestic violence, they ALL follow the same entry path. All prisoners brought into the jail are assumed to have contraband UNTIL they are thoroughly searched. Prohibiting matches and lighters in the jail has to be strongly considered.

No sheriff would allow an inmate access to an assault rifle in the jail but a cigarette lighter or book of matches to set a fire provides a bigger threat. Clayton County has a zero smoking policy in the jail for both inmates and staff. The Sheriff recognizes even a small fire contained to a single cell could produce enough toxic smoke and gases to kill dozens of people. Some sheriffs might allow trustees to have cigarettes as a reward for their special status in the jail, but can trustees ever really be trusted? NO! Clayton County calls inmates who perform work inmate workers to insure there's no confusion that they are still inmates who need to be closely monitored.

Creating a grievance procedure to provide inmates with an alternative method for dealing with frustrations can reduce tensions and dangers. Of course, the inmate grievance program means there has to be a sincere effort to listen - and respond - to inmate issues. While many inmate grievances do not have solutions, some concerns can be addressed to some degree. Clayton County has a dedicated grievance officer, Sandra Nash, who visits every cell block every day. She interacts with inmates seeking out their frustrations and identifying solutions to maximize tranquility and minimize tension. Officer Nash remarks, "I know my efforts improve inmates' quality of life and reduces jail violence. I enjoy my job and know I'm making a difference in people's lives. It's a challenging position and every day is different so it's never boring."

Mitigation - Limiting Fire's Destructive Power

Many jails are constructed of non-flammable materials such as concrete and steel. The contents in the jail and in the inmate's control should be carefully regulated and monitored. Limit the items inmates could set on fire such as books, clothes, and papers. If an inmate starts a fire in his cell its better to have five pounds of flammable materials than ten pounds.

When drafting purchase specifications, consider the flammability of items such as mattresses and padding. There are wide ranges of flammability and toxicity of items typically used in jails, so doing the research for safer specifications should be evaluated. Prohibit inmates' access to cleaning agents, adhesives, deodorants, perfumes, and aftershave to limit flammability.

Response - Saving Lives and Attacking the Fire(s)

When jail officers are alerted to a fire either by electronic alarm sensors, seeing or smelling smoke or flames, or hearing "FIRE!" the response has to be automatic. There can be no delay while untrained officers try to contact supervisors or review procedure manuals. With structural fires, toxic chemicals and lack of oxygen kills people. The longer the fire grows producing more heat and more toxic smoke, death and serious injuries are more likely. Seconds make a huge difference with fires.

For jail fires, officers have two options:

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