Fire in the jailhouse

June 2003 Fire & Safety

On 3 January 2003, a youth died and two others were hospitalised after they had set fire to a cell mattress at the juvenile detention centre in Rustenburg. They started the fire using contraband matches, after hiding while others went to lunch. Warders struggled to access the barricaded door. Staff used four extinguishers to put out the flames.

The above incident is not an isolated one. There have been other reports of inmates starting fires in order to create a diversion to escape. The reality is that in the local context fire detection and protection in correctional facilities is not high on the agenda of the authorities. The following article takes a look at fire detection at correctional facilities in the United States. Whilst the standards governing the US fire industry may be different to those in South Africa, the goals are similar - to protect both people and property in the event of a fire.

On 21 April 1930, the deadliest correctional facility fire in US history ravaged the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, killing more than 300 men. Ever since that time, the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and other model codes have required new and existing correctional facilities to be constructed of limited or non-combustible materials, and to be provided with automatic sprinkler and detection systems.

While these two requirements would appear to be complementary, they can pose challenges for the engineer, because fire-resistant building materials can restrict the options for distributing fire-safety systems throughout the facility. Moreover, there is another paradox in correctional facility design. Security measures require locked doors and restricted egress, the exact opposite of what fire and life-safety codes attempt to provide for other types of occupancies.

NFPA 101 defines a correctional facility as a place that provides sleeping accommodations for four or more persons who, in the event of a fire, are generally prevented from self-preservation because of security measures beyond their control. This includes correctional institutions and detention facilities. And meeting the unique design demands of correctional facilities depends on prior experience.

The value of experience

Problems tend to arise on these projects - construction delays, cost overruns, failure to meet owner and user expectations - often due to building team inexperience. In fact, these problems are often rooted in the design and construction team selection process itself, which fails to prequalify firms and proposed project personnel based on their past experience with correctional facilities.

Correctional facilities are built through a wide variety of project delivery methods. They are often design-built and rely on performance-based specifications. Or they can depend on prescriptive specifications that clearly define the systems' designs, with a separate construction team contracted to build.

But no matter what process is used, success depends on a team of qualified, experienced professionals who can provide valuable information about correctional facilities like the following:

* Familiarity with the circulation patterns.

* Awareness of the unique problems.

* Understanding of staff and detainee needs, resulting in designs that run efficiently and protect all involved.

* Appreciation of the benefit of post-occupancy evaluation to determine what systems function effectively.

* Knowledge of the applicable codes and standards.

But above all, experienced designers understand the nature of the different types of correctional facilities. Consequently, they are qualified to determine the level of system required.

Fire safety for inmates and public security are not necessarily contradictory. Safety from fire involves far more than just unimpeded egress from a building. To avoid the need to evacuate, a protect-in-place or defend-in-place strategy restricts the spread of fire and smoke from the room of origin by utilising the following systems:

* Designs that address issues of material combustion and division of the facility into separate smoke compartments.

* Provisions for detection, alarm and extinguishment.

* Prevention and planning, including staff training and drills.

* Provisions for the safety of responding firefighters, the general public and the occupants of the facility.

In many cases, relocating occupants from the area of origin to a secure area within the facility is the practical solution for protecting the occupants inside and the public outside. Compartmentalisation plays a key role. It is defined as using the building construction and fire-protection systems to detect and confine a fire; that is, to contain the migration of smoke and fire within the zone of origin. Smoke-zone boundaries are selected to present controllable, reasonably-sized areas, with at least two smoke zones on each floor to minimise the movement of inmates during an emergency.

Compartmentalisation is achieved through a system of non-combustible or limited-combustible, smoke- and fire-resistive walls and floor-ceiling assemblies, with protected vertical and horizontal openings in these barriers. These features are further enhanced by early-warning and active-protection detection systems such as automatic sprinkler and smoke control.

Early warning

Various options are available for early warning detection systems for correctional facilities, from the least preferred method - installing smoke detectors within individual cells - to installing air-sampling or aspirating systems. For all systems, vandalism prevention, maintenance and testing are major considerations.

Smoke detectors can be installed in individual cells, but vandalism may prove to be a continual problem for the facility operator. A variety of perforated steel security covers are manufactured to protect the smoke detectors. But depending on the size of openings in the covers, smoke entry into a detector's chamber may be impeded. The smoke detector and cover should be tested and listed by an approved testing laboratory to ensure the smoke detector's actuation time will not be impaired.

Most fires in correctional facilities are started by inmates as a means of drawing attention to themselves, to cause confusion when planning an escape or simply to disrupt normal operations. An inmate could block the openings in the security covers, preventing smoke from entering the detection chamber. In addition, security covers will not prevent the inmate from damaging the detector with liquid or any available foreign object that can penetrate the holes.

A viable alternative is an air-sampling or aspirating system. Sampling ports in the cells can be concealed in light fixtures, ventilation grills or some other location where inmates will not detect it. While the initial installation costs for an air-sampling system may be higher than for other detection methods, the lower cost of maintenance and testing make it cost-effective.

Fire sprinklers and smoke control

Tamper-resistant institutional-type sprinkler heads should be installed in inmate cells. They are substantially more expensive than the standard type, and listed protective covers for sprinkler heads can be used for areas under constant supervision.

However, even with institutional sprinkler heads and protective covers, vandalism can still result in a discharge. Pre-action or double interlock pre-action sprinkler systems - typically found in computer rooms, libraries, museums and cold storage facilities - offer an alternative to standard wet sprinkler systems. Pre-action systems are similar to dry-pipe systems in that water is prevented from entering the piping system until actuation of either a fire-alarm initiating device or activation of an automatic sprinkler head. They provide protection from accidental discharge.

In a double interlock pre-action system, the discharge of an automatic sprinkler system in an individual cell would only occur when the smoke detector serving that cell initiates an alarm and when the fusible element of a sprinkler serving the cell is activated. It is imperative to obtain the approval from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) prior to beginning any creative design alternatives.

Smoke-management systems in correctional facilities are designed to provide a tenable environment for relocation of occupants, from the zone of origin to an adjacent smoke-control zone - in other words, a safe refuge within the facility.

The design process

Prior to developing a schematic design, owners and their criminal justice consultants should prepare the architecture program or pre-architecural study. The architecture program will define operation and management requirements, inmate capacity analysis, square footage requirements and desired staffing patterns. A preliminary yet comprehensive fire safety plan is then developed. This is a written policy and procedure, to be approved by the local fire authority having jurisdiction. The fire safety plan specifies how the staff will respond to a fire emergency to ensure the safety of the inmates, visitors and staff.

Once the schematic design phase begins, a fire and life-safety report will be prepared by the fire-protection engineer. An experienced engineer, knowledgeable in the relevant codes and applicable systems, can reduce the overall cost of the facility by applying a unified, effective and creative design to the fire-protection systems. A complex and conservative approach to the design can increase the cost of a building up to 5% or more.

All of the stakeholders in the facility, including the owner, architect, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer and the AHJs, should be active participants in this process and must be in agreement with the concepts defined in the report. The construction of a correctional facility is a team effort with all stakeholders actively participating throughout the duration of the project.

For more information contact Brett Birch, GE Interlogix, 011 805 1590.

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