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.


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.

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