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Sheriff! Your Jail Is On Fire!

By Kem Kimbrough, Sheriff and Bill Lowe, Battalion Chief, Clayton County, Georgia

August 2009 saw prison riots where inmates set fires at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Kentucky, and the California Institute for Men in Chino, California. These prison riots resulted in hundreds of injured inmates with scores of inmates transported to local hospitals with serious injuries, injured prison officers, destruction and closure of jail facilities, threat of inmate escapes, relocation of inmates who both participated and ignored the riots, criminal investigations to identify those inmates responsible for the riots, and widespread citizen concern. Sheriffs easily rank jail fires near the top of their worst possible nightmares. This article seeks to enlighten readers on prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery steps that should be considered to confront jail fires.

There's no more sacred legal and moral duty elected sheriffs have than to provide safe and secure detention facilities for staff and inmates. Sheriffs' obligations exist even when inmates engage in deliberate conduct increasing the risk to themselves and others. Consequently, occupant protection requires planning and training for maximizing life safety in the event of a jail fire. Clayton County Sheriff Major Robert Sowell, who commands jail operations, remarks, "One of my biggest fears would be to have a jail fire. The potential for injuries and deaths is always present. While we have adequate staffing for normal jail operations, even a small fire could quickly overwhelm staff as they rescue inmates, fight the fire, and provide escorts for responding firefighters."

These two recent jail riots follow common knowledge that many jail fires are deliberately set by inmates for different reasons: (1) inmates who are just uncontrollable and irate seeking to express their grievances or create chaos for the legal system that keeps them confined against their will. (2) Mentally ill inmates who set fires either intentionally or unintentionally. And finally (3) inmates who start fires as a diversion for assaults on fellow prisoners / staff or escape attempts or both.

Inmates have unlimited time and energy to watch detention officers - watch them. These observant inmates make notes of shift changes and staffing patterns. They know when the jail staff is distracted on visitation days, contractors are delivering food and supplies, and court appearances. One question sheriffs should ask themselves is "Can my inmates view the staff parking lot to guesstimate how many officers are on-duty within my jail?" If inmates can gather this intelligence, they have valuable information for planning incidents.

Just consider how much effort SWAT teams take to gather intelligence when they plan high-risk warrants. Information is power so keeping inmates ignorant of staffing levels and patterns can be vital. Shielding the officers' parking lot from view should be evaluated. Clayton County's present jail is less than ten years old, and the original windows were clear thick Plexiglas offering inmates a view. However, after jail officers' cars were frequently vandalized and broken into as inmates observed and told friends and family which cars belonged to officers, the Plexiglas windows were sandblasted reducing visibility to zero.

Another solution is to confuse inmates by parking reserve patrol cars in the lot. There might only be six officers on duty but inmates looking into the parking lot see 15 patrol cars. It can - and does - offer inmates a moment of pause before they assault staff or set fire to your jail because inmates think more staff is present than actually exists.

Prevention - The Jail Fire that Never Ignited

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:

The first choice is to defending occupants in place and start aggressive fire suppression. Defending in place might be a reasonable approach when the fire is small, manpower is limited, and firefighting equipment can immediately be placed into action.

The second option is evacuating occupants by moving them away from the fire. Depending upon the cell block configuration, access control mechanisms for cell doors, and number of inmates needing to be moved, this might be a reasonable option. People who are closest to the fire are generally in greater danger so the initial focus is on moving them. Closing solid doors between occupants and the fire restricts the spread of fire and smoke and reduces the danger.

Conducting an accountability roll call confirming no one was left inside is critical. Sheriffs should develop methods for knowing how many people are inside their facilities, and practice accounting for them so it's a routine procedure. The inmate count is a reoccurring event but an accurate visitor and staff count is sometimes a guesstimate for the jail commander.

Sprinklers, Standpipes, Extinguishers & SCBAs: TMI (Too MUCH Information)!

When most people run for election to High Sheriff, they assume they know what knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed to fulfill their oaths. Quickly reality sinks in that much of sheriffs' duties have little to do with law enforcement. Knowledge of firefighting and fire protection equipment is also a critical competency.

Consult your local fire chief for specific technical knowledge of what fire protection system your jail has and how it works. Ask the fire chief to provide firefighting training to jail staff. If you wait for a fire to happen and then realize no one has taken responsibility for recurring fire training you may have a bad outcome.

Clayton County Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Hood offers "I can say with certainty fire chiefs across the United States want to provide their local sheriffs with fire prevention / suppression technical training and assistance. When a fire incident happens in a jail, it's our firefighters who have to enter the facility to rescue occupants, fight the fire, and overhaul the scene. Firefighters always like to have escape routes in case a fire gets out of control. However, for jail fires escape routes are not an option. Jails with detention officers trained to fight fires are a force multiplier and save lives!"

Fire alarms offer early detection and notification to occupants when smoke and heat are present. Clayton County's alarm sensors are distributed throughout the jail maximizing coverage and increasing the speed for a fire to be detected. There is a vast difference in fire alarm systems depending upon age and type. Regardless of what fire system is present the jail staff must be familiar with how it operates. False alerts are a frustrating element of fire alarm systems but the tendency to dismiss the alarm without making an assessment is risky. If the system is chronically malfunctioning, then make notes on the conditions when it happens so maintenance can better pinpoint the cause.

Fire sprinkler systems offer the highest possible fire protection for Clayton’s jail. Each sprinkler head represents a firefighter with a fire hose standing up 24/7/365 to extinguish a fire with minimal fire, smoke, and water destruction. Sprinkler heads release water when the fire reaches a certain temperature. The temperature release point varies depending upon the sprinkler head specifications.

One common myth is that if one sprinkler head activates then all of them go off at the same time flooding the building. That is false! Only when the fire's temperature exceeds the ratings of the sprinkler head will it go off. Consequently, an inmate who starts a fire in his single bunk cell will only cause one or two sprinkler heads to release water. When the water attacks the fire, it cools the fire and reduces the temperature. As the temperature drops, nearby sprinkler heads are not exposed to temperatures high enough to activate. There is no more valuable fire suppression system than a sprinkler system.

Standpipes (fire hose cabinets) are pre-connected fire hoses giving immediate access to staff and firefighters. Fire hose cabinets are heavy artillery for suppressing fires. A time-proven standard of fire fighting tactics is better to employ a fire hose too big than one too small. In most cases, firefighters will bring their own hose packs into the jail to connect to the standpipe system. Some jails, like Clayton County's jail, have standpipe connections throughout the jail giving firefighters convenient access for connecting fire hoses.

Portable fire extinguishers distributed throughout the jail offer a quick knockdown of small fires such as trash cans, electrical fires, and flammable liquids (cooking oils or gasoline). Extinguishers do require training so staff has the knowledge and confidence to use them.

Another vital piece of fire protection equipment is self-contained breathing apparatus or SCBA. These air packs make it possible for staff members to enter areas containing smoke and deadly gases. SCBAs could be used for rescuing trapped people or to escape to safety. Most sheriff offices will not have qualified personnel able to train jail staff adequately on firefighting. Ask your local fire chief for technical assistance and have a powerful networking opportunity at the same time. Both agencies will benefit from working together to prepare for an actual emergency. Clayton County Fire & Emergency Services is set up as another county fire station. Our SCBAs are now getting refilled and serviced on the same schedule as the equipment on the fire engines.

Clayton County's sheriff and fire chief work hard to achieve maximum cooperation. Firefighters regularly respond to the jail infirmary for medical transports, regular jail tours to familiarize firefighters with the facility, and the fire department maintains the jail's breathing apparatus. Georgia POST mandated fire arson investigators and tactical paramedics on the sheriff's Special Response Team (SRT) are sworn Clayton County deputy sheriffs. It's a win-win for both agencies and taxpayers!

When the fire alarm sounds or the jail notifies the fire department via telephone or radio, the clock is ticking as the firefighters respond to the incident. Their response time can range from quick to extended depending upon the firefighting resources a sheriff’s community provides. How long will it take to get past jail security? Are escorts available to get firefighters through the layers of doors and corridors? Working out the answers to these questions before an incident will save time and save lives!

Recovery - Picking up the Pieces

A sheriff responding with lights and sirens to a fire in the jail is multitasking while driving rapidly - and safely - through traffic, monitoring the radio, and using his cell phone to get updated information. It is a stressful and anxious period. The authors know from personal experiences initial incident reports are often inaccurate as events are unfolding.

People outside the jail will view the fire differently than people inside seeking to contain the incident. Taking clues from people's demeanor as they exit the facility is going to be inaccurate. Expect some panic and fear as people unfamiliar with fire try to evacuate. When the sheriff arrives, the highest quality information will come from the fire incident commander. Having the fire battalion chief in charge report, "Sheriff! The fire is out, there are no injuries, and damage is minimal," makes that fire officer your new best friend.

A quickly extinguished fire with minimal structure damage can still achieve enough smoke and water damage to cause operational disruptions. Even a small fire could result in inmates and staff reporting injuries, inmates being relocated to neighboring jails, extra staffing to escort and transport inmates, establishing a public information officer to interact with the media, or water damage to sensitive computer systems are all likely recovery issues the sheriff's staff will have to address. Developing contingency plans for a jail continuity crisis can and will result in a faster return to normal operations. Returning the jail to full capacity is the goal of the recovery phase but expect this period to take weeks or months depending upon the incident.

Conclusion and Challenge

Sheriffs should evaluate their own jail fire safety status. If a sheriff cannot remember the last time firefighters toured the jail, or the last time there was a jail fire training exercise, or the last time fire protection equipment was inspected, then maybe this article will serve as the necessary prompt to improve jail fire protection. As you read this article, view today's inmate and staff count in your own jail to know the number of reasons you have for improving jail fire safety! The challenge and responsibility will be yours - and yours alone! Accept the challenge to have improved fire safety in your jail(s)!

Authors' Dedication: This article is dedicated in memory and honor of Polk County, Florida Detention Sergeant Ronnie Brown. Sergeant Brown died on September 8, 2009 after being assaulted by an inmate. The inmate broke the sprinkler head in his cell, flooding the cell, and then the inmate slammed Sergeant Brown against the wall breaking the Sergeant's back.

Authors' Photo Comment: The people in the article photos are all public safety employees. None are inmates. Clayton County Sheriff Major Robert Sowell took the photos.