Firefighting in Correctional Facilities


Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of people incarcerated in this country. According to the National Data Book (“Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2002.” 122nd Edition), state and federal correctional institutions or places of confinement increased from 1,287 in 1990 to 1,668 in 2000. Correctional facilities are found in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Fire department leaders should focus on the unique operational challenges a detention center incident can pose for any size emergency response organization. Historically, many incidents in correctional facilities have resulted in fatalities and injuries. Inmates, visitors, and even responders have not been immune.

According to estimates based on National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) surveys, more than 62.5 percent of prison fires occur in a cellblock. On January 13, 2004, in Camden, New Jersey, a fire at the medium-security Riverfront State Prison, which contained 1,136 inmates, destroyed a housing unit. Evacuation and temporary accommodations were needed.

In Roanoke, Virginia, a paramedic was beaten to death with an oxygen bottle after not providing an inmate with additional medicine. In Paterson, New Jersey, a recon team got locked in a burning room without a hoseline. Afterward, a seasoned battalion commander said he was never more scared in his life.

In an effort to reduce serious prison fires, manufacturers of fire protection systems have worked to devise a special sprinkler head that resists inmate tampering. These heads are designed to reduce the opportunity for an inmate to hang himself.

In addition to violence, security, and housing issues at correctional facilities, there are fire prevention concerns about small commissaries, large kitchens, sizeable maintenance shops, and huge warehouses. Often, other structures such as a chapel, clinic, classroom, or library can cause fire-related problems. Finally, every penitentiary regardless of age or jurisdiction has a full-capacity laundry. Many films have portrayed the convicts as mean, shady, and devious individuals often condemned to cleaning tons of soiled clothing. Statistically, not all inmates fall into this category, yet dirty garments are a reality, and data reveal that seven percent of prison fires start in the central laundry.

(1) View of side A. An incorrectly placed apparatus can cause a bottleneck for positioning additional apparatus, stretching water lines, or hauling RIT equipment. Proper apparatus placement and water relay operations are critical to an effective response. (Photos by author.)


(2) View of side B. Laundries have large open spaces and can create significant fire loads. Expect rapid fire spread and long hoseline stretches. Anticipate friction loss based on the hoseline size, flow rates for multiple lines, and nozzle types based on pressure limitations.


(3) View of side C. The overhead doors were difficult to cut and were inside the collapse zone. Note the cracks that indicate a potential danger. Expect additional security devices that can cause forcible entry delays.



In the early morning hours of August 12, 2003, the Philadelphia Prison System, compromised of five separate jails, had an extra-alarm fire in the large laundry. The Fire Dispatch Center received a phone call at 0027 hours reporting a fire in the rear of the House of Corrections at 8001 State Road in northeast Philadelphia. The watch person at five fire stations “hiked out” engines, ladders, medic units, and chief officers for the Detention Center fire. This was a first-alarm assignment with more than 30 responders.

As the members of Engine Co. 36 and Ladder Co. 20 arrived at a prearranged security gate, they could see the heavy smoke pouring from a one-story structure inside the fenced-in prison grounds. Clearance was obtained from an official of the prison. Responders were assured that all inmates were secured in cellblocks.

With extreme caution, the fire companies proceeded along a narrow roadway. Their first-due radio report was clear and concise. It pinpointed the problem. The rear portion of a 50- 2 100-foot structure was involved. Portions of the complex housed woodworking and masonry shops. The commercial-size laundry was interconnected by an enclosed walkway.

Additional incoming suppression and medical units were permitted to pass the prison’s main gate. Units were instructed to initiate an offensive attack with handlines and ground ladders. First-aid stations provided medical support on opposite sides of the structure. All four first-alarm engine companies connected to hydrants off an eight-inch water main and stretched mobile water lines to the front and rear. The two ladder companies began to ventilate the windows and open the roof.

To gain entry, a crew began to cut at a metal overhead door. The two chief officers conferred and divided the scene. The incident commander recognized the probability of escalation and asked for an additional alarm. Immediately, more mitigation, medical, and management teams were dispatched.

As the on-duty deputy chief, while en route, I was attempting to recall the lecture on firefighting procedures in prisons from the National Fire Academy’s “Command and Control of Fire Depart-ment Operations at Target Hazards” course. I remembered the tale of the Ohio Penitentiary in which there was a large loss of life. I thought of the fire in the penal institution in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where firefighters were injured. I kept in mind the retrospective review from the Philadelphia prison riot in the 1980s. All were paramount for rapid on-scene decision making.

After donning my bunker gear, I approached the command post. Fire was still visible from the cornice of the building. During the transfer of command, I asked the standard questions: What are the problems? Has there been any progress? What is still needed? I was informed that no problems existed with the confinement of the prisoners, access was restricted, progress was slow, and personnel needs were still being assessed.

Forcible entry took time and energy. The fire load in the laundry was excessive, but water was being applied. Hose teams were in the proper positions to protect exposures. Luckily, the construction of the building gave the fire attack and vent groups sufficient time to work. On assuming command, I placed an additional ladder company in service. I sent the crew to the roof to support vertical ventilation and repositioned an engine company for better coverage of the carpentry shop. I appointed a staging area manager and set up a “check point” outside the prison gates. Logistics advised that a water relay operation may be needed.

In a short time, I documented assignments on the resource board. Interior and roof crews had good supervision and specific duties. Communication was clear. The safety officer spotted a bulge in the cinder block wall on side C. Companies and crews were alerted, and banner tape was placed to warn members of the collapse potential. Two rapid intervention teams were assigned to monitor entry points on sides B and C. A rest and rehab sector was supervised and staffed. Progress on this hot, humid night was going well.

Problems Develop

Then medical and tactical problems developed. The extreme weather had taken its toll on one member. A firefighter was having difficulty breathing. Paramedics positioned at the first-aid station in the front and rear of the structure began to react. They removed the member’s bunker coat and administered pure oxygen. Notifying the appropriate hospital, creating a traffic plan, and transporting the member to the hospital were top priorities.

We then received a radio message from the interior sector. A member slipped on the wet concrete floor while assisting in advancing the main attack line. The shoulder injury he sustained required immediate immobilization. Paramedics again were summoned to provide triage and treatment. An engine company was brought from staging to supplement the attack forces.

The first-floor sector supervisor reported that fire had extended into the wooden roof assembly and that opening the high ceiling was difficult. The 12-foot ceiling hook was needed, and the stucco-covered ceiling hid the heavy gauge wire lath. Checking for fire spread was labor-intensive because opening large portions of the ceiling was not easy. A thermal imaging camera (TIC) was used to isolate hot spots while the parapets were checked for “poke-through” defects.

After approximately one hour, the fire was confined and placed under control. Units stayed on the scene for several hours performing cleanup and overhaul duties.

During the days that followed, we reviewed our operational procedures to determine whether responder risk was kept to a minimum and scene stabilization efforts jeopardized prison security.

(4) Ventilation is a tactical concern at any fire. Structures with overhead doors require special attention. Always note the dimensions of the overhang and support and the specific location of the manual chain. At prisons, the manual chain is concealed inside the housing to prevent prisoners’ tampering. Training on electric, keyed, or manual door operations and their impact on mitigation efforts is recommended.


(5) A high ceiling with wire lath is a significant firefighting challenge in commercial properties. Twelve-foot ceilings often disguise fire spread and hide obstacles that impede ventilation. Many times when this type of ceiling design is present, it is more effective to push down the ceiling from the roof.


(6) The cracks and shifting of the bearing wall are safety concerns. A collapse zone must be plainly identified and a safe corridor clearly marked.



The critique was conducted with the deputy warden. We concluded that the following tactical tips should help when deploying personnel and equipment to a secured facility.

  • Prisons have many components. Most have a fire potential. Having trained correctional officers who can explain floor layouts, find master keys, obtain MSDS documents, understand the security systems, and know the location of the armed guard post is a valuable asset.
  • Prisons have many unique and complex problems. Often, the most intense incidents will mandate an “all-out” fire department response. Multiagency drills are essential for efficiency and safety.
  • A trustworthy preparedness plan must include an emergency evacuation policy, reliable fire protection features, strict control of combustibles, and a comprehensive communication procedure.
  • The demands for special security reduce access and egress routes. Often, windows and doors are blocked. You will need several rapid intervention teams (RIT).
  • Rest and rehab areas must be supervised, staffed, and spaced to provide immediate fluid replacement and medical monitoring.
  • Plainly mark potential collapse zones to avoid confusing restricted work areas with safe corridors for operations. Assign someone to control movement in a high-hazard sector.
  • The Philadelphia prison system has a long history of requesting assistance. Everyone from the newest firefighter to the fire chief knows the potential for loss of life in this correctional facility. To assist with incipient fires and medical emergencies, a pumper and trained correctional officers who graduated from the Philadelphia Fire Academy are at the site. Preincident planning has long been considered a priority. Protecting public safety personnel requires an all-risk/all-hazards program that builds a strong relationship between early responders and correctional officials.

All fire service personnel must examine the expanding role of service delivery. They must have the courage to tackle the tough issues of life safety, scene stabilization, and loss control. In today’s world, courage has many facades. For an engine company, it is crawling in large, wide, open spaces. For ladder companies, it is working on the roof above a burning building. For medics, it is dealing with a “down firefighter.” For chief officers, it is finding sensible solutions in strange situations.

Responding “behind bars” is stressful. Having a practical plan for firefighters, paramedics, company commanders, chief officers, and prison guards will reduce fireground failures. There are numerous hazards and risks at a jail fire. How the initial companies handle fire attack, ventilation, and search can mean the difference between a minor problem and a deadly disaster, between public praise and community criticism. Increase the odds of safety and survival by having written guidelines before the prison population moves into your response district. The next time law enforcement makes an arrest, note, remember, and consider the impact on your department and decision makers.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief and a 31-year veteran of the Phila-delphia (PA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and teaches courses on fireground operations, health and safety, and fire prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and has spoken numerous times at the FDIC.

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