Correctional facility fire safety: Where escape isn’t an option

by FM Media
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How do you provide fire safety within a correctional facility? DR DARRYL WEINERT from AECOM explains that there are numerous unique challenges that need to be faced to provide a fire-safe environment where escape isn’t an option.

Fire safety in correctional facilities has its challenges since these facilities, by their very nature, generally do not allow occupants to escape. Some, depending on the management’s philosophy and what level of security applies, accommodate remote unlocking of cells and accommodation buildings, but many do not.
Over the years, solutions have been developed to address the fire safety issues associated with incarceration. The primary principle for fire safety in a modern correctional facility is prevention by minimising fuel and reducing fuel contribution to a fire. This is done by setting limits on prisoner possessions and providing flame retardant mattresses and furnishings. The intention is to limit the rate of a fire’s growth, keeping it as small as possible and easier to deal with, lowering the threat to the occupants of the prison.
To support the primary principle, it is necessary to have a collection of fire systems enabling an emergency response. In Australia, this typically includes an aspirated smoke detection system and mechanical smoke purging in prisoners’ cells. Automatic fire sprinklers are generally not used in cells within Australian correctional facilities. They are sometimes installed in the other areas of accommodation buildings, which would usually have high ceilings, thereby placing the sprinkler heads out of reach.

Early warning and quick response are key. Smoke detection provides an early warning for correctional facility staff to become aware of a fire and respond before conditions in the cell become untenable. This early response is critical because cells can fill with smoke quickly.
Aspirated smoke detection or in-duct smoke detection systems with high sensitivity are used to monitor the air circulated in the air-conditioning system via the return air duct and sometimes directly in the cell. A consequence of their high sensitivity is an increased frequency of nuisance or false alarms.
Therefore, during design and installation, smoke detectors need to be chosen to minimise the likelihood of nuisance alarms for either standard point detectors or aspirated detectors. For example, a heat detector would be selected to install in a trade workshop rather than a smoke detector. Smart aspirated systems have scheduling that can automatically adjust sensitivity settings at different times of the day, allowing activity that generates nuisance alarms, then switching back to the higher sensitivity when that activity stops.
Mischievous actions, vandalism and prisoners smoking affect smoke detection. In the case of mischievous actions, it is not always obvious to facilities management staff what caused an alarm. This could result in the maintenance contractor trying to fix something that is not necessarily within their ability to correct and, similarly, prisoners may be unnecessarily blamed for maintenance issues.
Smoking in correctional facility buildings is prohibited, but controlling access to prisoners’ smoking material has its challenges, so smoking is often a source of nuisance alarms. Facilities and operations managers need to work together to resolve these issues by cross-referencing alarm panel logs, security and activity programs.
When the use of a building changes within a correctional facility, it is worth reconsidering the fire detection that is being used to ensure it is still appropriate. These changes occur when there is an increase in a correctional facility’s capacity. Support areas may also need to expand to accommodate varied use. Nuisance alarms from activities that generate airborne particles are generally the issue; for example, around hot works or cooking.

Another system that supports cell fire safety is smoke purging. The air-conditioning system is used to push fresh air into the cell and extract smoke. Most cells allow for operable windows, but these are manual and allow air movement through security grilles. Because they are manual, they may not always be open, so additional air is drawn through door grilles.
Security necessitates minimal ligature points on the windows, supply air, door vent and exhaust vent. All are protected by sheet steel with very fine holes to allow air to flow through.
From a smoke-purging perspective, this perforated sheet steel results in relatively high pressure drops and limits the amount of smoke that can practically be purged through the cell. From a maintenance perspective, the fine holes often need cleaning from general dust build-up and from vandalism.

Designers and builders avoid putting any accessible essential safety equipment in the cells for a number of reasons. First and foremost, is the need to minimise ligature points. Second, because of security issues, maintenance inside a cell is disruptive and requires special management measures.
Typically, there may be only four hours available to conduct cell maintenance while prisoners are undertaking other activities elsewhere. There are also security clearances and specific access requirements necessary to enter the correctional facility, which puts constraints on how quickly maintenance personnel can be called to a site.
Maintenance access is provided outside of the prisoner-occupied space wherever possible, allowing maintenance to be conducted while retaining security controls and minimising risks to civilians. This can be achieved by having separate access to the building plant entrance from outside of a secure compound or from inside the facility via no-prisoner zones.
Third, prisoners have excess time available and possible anger management issues. Keeping essential safety equipment out of cells ensures they are not tempted to cause damage and compromise their own safety.
The majority of fire safety systems in correctional facilities are standard. The careful application of these systems and approach to cell fire safety is the key issue. Differences in design approach do occur and it is important to be aware of the different systems and maintenance requirements particular to a facility.

Dr Darryl Weinert is the fire and risk engineering group manager at AECOM and a member of the Society of Fire Safety (Vic).

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