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.


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

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