Oily rags ignited a blaze on the roof of the overcrowded three-story Ohio State Penitentiary on April 21, 1930, resulting in a horrific fire that left 322 inmates dead from smoke inhalation. The undetected fire erupted minutes after iron gates had closed 4,500 men to confinement in their cells. Not a single guard or staff member had been trained in how to respond to a fire.

The jail’s warden was initially certain that the fire had been designed as part of an escape plot. The fire advanced prodigiously, becoming so hot that a tower of catwalks warped and twisted into a snarl of metal. The 40-year-old structure contained six tiers of cellblocks, and those on tiers 5 and 6 were trapped by smoke and flame. Most inmates were eventually evacuated despite the ensuing chaos.

That prison fire in Columbus, OH, remains the deadliest in U m.S. history. On its heels, the NFPA Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and other model codes called for new jails to be constructed of limited- or non-combustible materials, and to be provided with automatic fire sprinkler and detection systems. [NFPA 101 is authored in part by a technical subcommittee on Detention and Correctional Occupancies and contains one full chapter outlining specific required provisions for prisons.] But until 1977, few automatic fire sprinkler systems were present in correctional facilities. In June and July of that year, three major fires in unsprinklered prisons combined to end 68 lives.

In St. John, New Brunswick, 21 perished in their cells due to smoke inhalation following an arson fire. Forty-two died just five days later, on June 26, 1977, in Maury County, TN. Like the New Brunswick tragedy, this one was incendiary, and a lengthy search by staff for lost keys were noted as a major contributing factor. Five more fatalities occurring on July 7th in a federal prison in Danbury, CT, initiated public awareness and nationwide sympathy for those dying inhumanely while locked in a cell. Gradually, smoke detection and fire sprinkler systems were accepted as sensible and practical inclusions to correctional facilities. Current data reveals that property losses decrease by 86% in prison fires where sprinklers are present.

Everyone Lives Behind Locked Doors

Among all occupancy groups, correctional facilities may be the most difficult to protect from fire, in part because the cardinal rule of immediate evacuation does not apply. Life-safety code requisites are invalidated in contradictory fashion by heightened security measures, which require that all fire exits are locked, chained, or completely obstructed.

To resolve this conflict, jails adhere to a “protect-in-place” strategy, opting to relocate inmates from the area of fire origin to a secure area within the facility. Today, this is standard procedure.

Not surprisingly, fires occur all too often within U.S. jails and detention centers. Seven out of 10 are intentionally set. For example, in 2003 in the 138 British prisons, 674 of the 980 fire occurrences were recorded as “malicious ignition.” Most of these fires are quickly extinguished, and authorities estimate that half of all prison fires go unreported. In case you’re wondering, it’s not realistic to expect anytime soon that inmates who smoke will be denied access to matches or lighters.

Any one of nine basic triggers factor into an incidence of inmate arson:

  • to intimidate other inmates or staff;
  • as a distraction to assist others attempting to escape;
  • as a means of revenge;
  • to draw attention;
  • as a means of suicide;
  • to protest living conditions;
  • to relieve the boredom of incarceration;
  • as a show of force during a prison riot; and
  • when inmates with severe mental problems “act out.”

    Riots are a real threat. During a 7-hour New Brunswick conflict on June 17, 2007, rioting inmates broke lights, ignited one fire, smashed windows, and shattered fire sprinklers in common areas. When facilities are overcrowded, the task of successfully moving or evacuating individuals becomes more arduous. And an increased prisoner density within confined spaces breeds a greater propensity for malice. Besides deliberately-set fires, the leading causes for prison fires include cooking and heating equipment, smoking, electrical system malfunction, and clothes dryers. Of all laundries in the U.S., one in six reports a fire each year, with dryers to blame for 70% of these instances.

  • Whose Lives are We Safeguarding?

    As more new prisons were equipped with automatic sprinkler systems throughout the 1980s, and more existing jails were retrofitted with sprinklers, authorities took note of an increase in the inmate suicide rate. Those suffering from mental illness or emotional distress posed an obvious risk. Such a person may start his bedding on fire to attempt suicide, an action that would certainly place the lives of others in peril.

    In California, home to the nation’s largest state prison system, sprinklers themselves had been used as an anchor for numerous hangings. While some facilities retrofitted in sprinklers, they refrained from placing them in housing units to preclude the possibility of self-injury. Institutional sprinklers were developed as a result, designed to release with a suspended pull in excess of 50 pounds.

    The term “tamper-resistant” takes on a whole new meaning inside jails, where some inmates are prone to do almost anything to disrupt normal operations to interrupt their monotony. Sprinklers then, were viewed as an irresistible temptation for vandalism. Another fear was that inmates might disassemble the sprinkler heads and use the parts as weapons.

    Institutional sprinkler technology responded by equipping heads with tamper-resistant components and quick-response units with a short, angled, sturdy flush installation. Brass-body sprinklers such as the Tyco Model TFP MAX Institutional Horizontal Sidewall or the Reliable Model XL Institutional Pendent have a proven track record, and are mainstays in mental institutions and prison applications today.

    Design is the Key

    I prepared documents and provided a preliminary retrofit design for a 29-story maximum security prison in 1990. Focusing on the work itself was usually not difficult, one distraction being the disclaimer to be signed each day, which basically said that anyone held hostage was pretty much on their own. The total security concept is meticulously strict, causing long delays when moving from one area to another. Eventually I was able to access all areas except the armory.

    What can burn? Beyond the kitchen, library, carpentry shop, mechanical/electrical rooms, and the laundry, cell blocks are a haven for personal effects, clothing, papers, computers, magazines, mattresses, and radios. One guy had part of his cell occupied by a stack of pornography that was 4 feet high. Small television sets, books, and blankets round out the mix of combustibles. Many jails use fire-retardant cotton bedding to reduce the fire potential.

    Design meetings were attended by at least 10 staff members who scrutinized each nuance of design. The first item nixed for this concrete structure concerned the use of Hilti guns, strictly verboten for the installation. Sealants were to be carefully detailed for all soffits and escutcheons, so that it would be impossible for anyone to hide a razor blade (or drugs) between the concrete and flush metal coverings.

    The goals established included immediate containment and control of fire and ensuing smoke. A primary concern was prompt fire detection to alert both staff and occupants of trouble, along with zoning to efficiently pinpoint the source of a fire. Smoke detectors were guarded with 22-gauge mesh security housings that had adequate openings for smoke entry. It was decided that if these could not be reasonably protected, the backup option was to install the detectors only inside HVAC system ductwork.

    Budget and space considerations prohibited the very sagacious alternative of double-interlocked, pre-action systems to protect the structure, but the wet-pipe scheme serviced the need for quick failsafe water application. As with any project, the designer must ask himself: what potential problems are unique to this occupancy? One need that was not overlooked was the search for a contractor experienced in the litany of details, applicable codes, installation delays, and construction methods to be implemented for correctional facility system projects.

    That is why you never want to go “design-build,” and signing on the low bidder is probably a bad option. Overall success hinges on an experienced, professional team effort, and a willingness to agree on long-term life safety goals.