Cooperation Blends Security With Fire Safety in Prison

Cooperation Blends Security With Fire Safety in Prison


Chief Auburn, N. Y., Fire Department

Apparatus undergoes security inspection before leaving prison.

Photos by Capt. John E. Meehan, Auburn, N.Y., Fire Dept.

Sometimes in casual conversation, I refer to my town as “my cities.” This may seem strange, but there is complete truth in the plural “cities,” because we have an independent city within our city. It has streets, sidewalks, housing (both low level and high rise), industry, warehousing and commercial enterprises such as stores, bakeries, laundries, theaters and repair shops. It has churches, educational facilities, including grade, high school, college and technical schools, doctors, dentists, a hospital, a fire department, a police department and all other related necessities for the proper functioning of a modern city.

The difference between this city and yours and mine is that it is “walled in.” One time designated as Auburn State Prison, it is now called the Auburn Correctional Facility (Maximum Security). The installation has been part of our city since 1816, at which time it was somewhat larger than the town itself. Over the years, it has become such an accepted fact of life that we Auburnians sometimes have to pause and think a moment when asked “What are those big walls for?”

Over the years, the facility has had numerous problems. The more serious ones always involved our fire department. Two pieces of apparatus were lost during the 1929 and 1931 riots, and some of our fire fighters are on disability retirement today as a result of injuries sustained at these incidents.

Faced with the many unique and complex problems common to such a facility, our department has evolved some procedures that are efficient from the standpoint of time saved in arriving at the fire scene, water application on the fire, and increased safety of our personnel.

Taking up a problem

Generally, the fires here are not too different from fires in like areas of the city. Some are of short duration, thanks to quick attack; others require more time due to heavier fire involvement. In most cases, the greatest time-consuming element was to get our apparatus out of the facility. Due to maximum security, each truck had to undergo a thorough search at the wall gate holding area before being allowed out. This required upwards of 20 minutes per vehicle.

Multiply this by three engine companies and one ladder company and one chiefs car and it can be seen that the department was unnecessarily tied up for more than one hour.

We solved this problem by having the full first-alarm assignment respond to a prearranged gate, but having only the first-due engine company and the duty chief enter. Once inside, the chief radioes back for any additional assistance he requires. Usually he requests manpower, tools, special items, and when necessary, additional fire companies. Now, when the fire is out, getting one truck and one car out of security is a relatively short operation, taking slightly over 20 minutes. This, then, compared to the past one hour plus, shows that we have increased our availability for another fire by approximately one hour. The balance of the firstalarm assignment, of course, remains outside the gate and can be used as needed inside, or for another alarm in the city.

Another time-consuming problem we encountered centered around entry into the cell blocks during the night. The problem here was getting the outside entry doors to the cell block opened. In most instances, we had a 5 to 10-minute delay while an outside correctional officer located and brought the proper keys to open the cell block doors. (Inside correctional officers cannot open outside doors during the night hours.)

We started a new procedure whereby the entering engine company and duty chief were met at the gate by a correctional officer having the necessary entry keys in his possession. They then proceed to the fire cell block and make immediate entry. This procedure has been in effect only a few years, but it has proven to be a big time-saver for our department.

Looking back, the concept of a correctional officer with entry keys for an institutional building riding with a duty chief is a big departure from the maximum security practiced in the past. Nevertheless, with the cooperation and insistence of the present facility superintendent, state red tape was cut with resulting time-saving benefits to all concerned.

The problem of cell fires is a recurrent one, and I doubt if it will ever be fully solved. A look at the national news media for any given period usually shows at least one story of a fire death or serious injury at some correctional institution. Many of these occur as a result of a cell fire.

Cell fires a problem

Cell fires present problems completely unlike those we encounter elsewhere. From outside, the construction and layout of a cell block structure appear quite similar to the average five or six-story fire-resistant building. However, inside, the building is completely open from floor to roof. The center of the building is occupied by five or six tiers (stories) of cells. These are serviced by galleries (walkways) approximately 6 feet wide. The big hazard, from a fire safety viewpoint, is that all cells are separated from each other only by steel bars or steel bulkheads. However, there is no barrier for smoke and fire. It can be seen therefore that a fire in any given cell can easily communicate fire and smoke to adjacent cells in a kind of domino effect. Smoke presents an even greater problem since it affects the inmates both to the sides and above the cell involved. This construction makes quick fire attack imperative.

Prison officials and our fire department have taken several steps which have helped to diminish the cell fire injury rate. First, it might be best to mention that an individual cell contains certain quantities of combustibles. The exact amount usually depends on the policy of the particular correctional institution. Even the barest of furnishings must of necessity include a mattress, sheets, pillows, blankets, a cushioned chair, necessary clothing, etc. Some institutions permit items such as books, papers, art supplies and hobby materials. From a fire safety viewpoint, it can be recognized that all these materials constitute a fire load that can easily sustain a good hot fire. Our approach to the problem includes speeding up the fire attack, quick evacuation of the area, and a soon to be accomplished quick, positive smoke removal.

Training prison personnel

The first step was taken after the mini riots of the early 1970s. This involved our recommendation that the existing linen hose and playpipe nozzles be discarded from all standpipe stations. These were to be replaced with single-jacket fire hose with adjustable nozzles. Also, all standpipe threads were adapted to fire department NST l 1/2-inch thread. This recommendation was accomplished, and our department immediately undertook a training program to make correctional personnel familiar with the operation of 1 1/2-inch hose lines. Now, duty correctional personnel are in a position to attack a cell fire almost immediately with a good (standpipe) stream. As a secondary benefit, our fire fighters can extend, or interchange, existing hose lines when they arrive.

Smoke from a cell fire was the other pressing problem that had to be dealt with. This was first worked on an experimental basis. The facility purchased a rather small number of self-contained breathing apparatus, and the fire department trained a limited number of correction officers in their use. The idea here was to allow a duty correctional officer to don a mask and make an immediate entry into a smoke-filled area to make a rescue or start an evacuation.

Luckily, one of the trained officers was on duty when the next cell fire occurred. He was able to evacuate the block quickly, thereby avoiding injuries. Prison officials were so impressed by this incident that they made a large investment in self-contained breathing apparatus. The fire department and prison guards continued training and at the present time, all cell block personnel are fully capable of mask use.

Our last problem—quick smoke removal—remains yet to be accomplished.

Horizontal fire escape leads to a holding area. Primary exit is shown in insert.Cell block inspection is made by James Byrne, the prison fire chief, and Captain William Jacobs of the Auburn Fire Department.

Positioning permanent high-volume smoke fans in this type of building has presented many engineering difficulties. Because of construction, security and cost, placement of fans in the roof was ruled out. It looks now like installation will have to he made in the upper window areas. The open interior construction enhances this position, and we all are confident that the job once accomplished will be successful. We are now hopeful that the triple attack of fast water application, smoke area entry for rescue and high-volume smoke removal will bring a cell fire under quick control.

Arson a problem

One insidious fact accompanying the cell fire problem is that they are not all accidental. Suicide fires have occurred. Some are successful, some are not. One such fire claimed the life of the perpetrator and put 47 of his fellow inmates in the hospital with smoke-related injuries.

The arson fire is also a very real threat. As a deterrent, the prison officials and the fire department long ago agreed to investigate every fire for cause. Whenever suspicion exists, the fire department arson team makes a thorough investigation. During the past year, five suspicious fires were investigated. Two of them were submitted for prosecution. When they came to trial, both cases resulted in convictions.

We are hopeful now that the word will get out and we can expect a decrease in further arson attempts.

The necessity of cell block evacuation presents a secondary problem to the fire department if the evacuation is not conducted with the full cooperation of the correctional personnel. Early in our experience, inmates were evacuated into the same area used by fire department personnel. This situation could have had disastrous results, and needless to say, it was corrected immediately. Inmates are now conducted into another building or a protected area, thereby maintaining complete separation of the inmates and our fire fighters.

For the past decade the fire department has been allowed to review plans for all new buildings or major renovations at the prison. We requested this with the hope that we could improve the exit facilities of assembly areas.

Following building and exit codes as they apply elsewhere is extremely difficult in a correctional facility. Here the overriding consideration is security. Nevertheless, in many cases we have been able to suggest solutions to secondary exit requirements that fit well into security requirements.

A notable example is a circular chute installed at the rear of a 900-seat auditorium. This coupled with an existing triple fire escape now provides very quick evacuation from both sides and the rear of this building.

Exit facilities redesigned

Another new building requiring a different approach to secondary exit was a large gymnasium. Here the problem was where to locate the inmates after they had used the exit. The problem was solved by building an outside horizontal fire escape routed to a fire-protected and secure holding area.

These, plus lesser secondary exits on other buildings, have brought exit requirements up to fire department standards, while maintaining the institution’s security.

Hydrant placement

Another major cooperative step was taken when the fire department recommended replacement of certain fire hydrants within the facility. This was necessitated because many existing streets were abandoned due to new construction and hydrants on these streets became all but unusable. The state took our recommendation and not only relocated the hydrants but installed several new hydrants with the end result that the new hydrant system is more than adequate.

It is all but impossible to illustrate 160 years of experience in such a unique installation in a short article. I have only been able to focus on some of the major problems and the procedures used to cope with them.

Knowing human nature, man’s appetite for change, and the certain mandated changes always occurring in such an operation, it becomes obvious that more problems will surface tomorrow. I feel certain, however, that with existing cooperation between the prison officials and this department, these problems will also be solved.

Construction plans for a prison building are reviewed by, from left, Chief William D. Maywalt of Auburn; Lieutenant Michael Harmon, Auburn Fire Department training officer; Security Captain Paul Bellnier; and Superintendent Robert Henderson of the Auburn Correctional Facility.Debris indicates the surprising amount of combustibles that may be in a cell.

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