Inspections, Drills Make Fire Safety a Way of Life In Dallas County Jails
Photos from Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.
The specter of jail and prison fires was dramatically brought to the attention of the general public by the deaths of 68 inmates in three fires last year. Fire is not a new problem to jail and prison officials—it is just new to the public. Penal institutions that have lost suits over inmate fire injuries and deaths are well aware of the problem.
The law holds when a prisoner is in custody, those holding him are responsible for his safety. In one case, a man arrested for driving while intoxicated passed out and was placed unconscious in a small cell. The officers came back in about three hours to find the cell full of smoke and fire. One officer tried to put out the fire instead of first trying to get the prisoner out and even kept the other officers from rescuing the victim. The prisoner was removed 10 minutes later, but he soon died.
Sheriff found negligent
The court held the sheriff negligent for the following acts:
- Failing to examine the prisoner to determine that he was intoxicated and in need of aid;
- Failing to search the prisoner to discover matches in his pocket;
- Confining the prisoner in a cagelike cell which was unsuitable for living, inacessible and increased the danger of suffocation;
- Failing to have guards and attendants at night to discover the fire;
- Failing to promptly rescue the prisoner after the fire was discovered;
- Using water in an attempt to put out the fire when it was obvious to anyone that this would only increase the smoke; and
- Interfering with the rescue attempts of others.
It was not indicated how the judge knew the proper suppression method for a fire of this nature.
In another suit, a county jail inmate was injured when he set his mattress on fire to create smoke to drive away voices he was hearing. Judgment was entered in favor of the inmate because the prison guards had been informed by a psychiatrist of the inmate’s mental problem and they failed to take away his matches.
Real fire or escape try?
When a fire occurs in a jail or prison, the guards are faced with the question, “Is it a legitimate fire or an escape attempt?”
In Florence, Ariz., there was a fire in a 200-inmate cell block. A guard opened the cell that was on fire, released the inmate and was fighting the blaze with a hose line. The prisoner stabbed him, took his keys and opened cells releasing other inmates who attacked a second guard who was coming to his rescue. This dilemma can cause critical delays in rescuing prisoners.
Officers are more familiar with fire in the context of crowd and traffic control than in the actual fire suppression. They think that there is nothing to burn in a “fireproof” concrete and steel building. They fail to realize that in each of those concrete and steel cells are large amounts of clothing, shoes, newspapers, books, mattresses, mattress covers, sheets and pillows that can be piled on the floor and ignited, creating a large amount of deadly smoke. Because of their lack of training in fire suppression, they do not know how important prompt action is. They do not realize that they only have minutes to remove persons in danger of suffocation.
Many times there is a lack of cooperation between the local fire department and the jail or prison system. There is a delay in notifying the fire department because the jail personnel feel that they should be able to handle the emergency and it is a loss of face to call the fire department to suppress a fire within their system. Many old-school fire chiefs had similar thinking in that to them it was a loss of face if they turned in a second alarm.
Causes of delay
When fire fighters arrive, they are usually unfamiliar with the jail configuration, where the standpipes are located and how to maneuver wit hin the facility. The jail personnel do not know how to cooperate with the fire department because they do not know what the fire department needs. This causes additional delay in rescue and fire suppression.
The jail and the fire personnel must drill together so that initial confusion can be reduced to a minimum. There is no point in trying to say there will be no chaos when there is a fire in a jail, but with proper training and cooperation, it will be an organized rather than a disorganized chaos. Detention personnel need to be sold on the idea of the importance of calling the fire department when there is a fire. If the jail personnel are able to handle the situation before the fire department arrives, the fire department will not be upset at being called. However, fire fighters will be upset when they are called too late to do the job they are capable of doing.
If the penal or detention center does not make the initial contact with the local fire department, it is up to the fire department to offer its services and point out what it can do to help in prefire planning, training and actual emergency. Don’t give the center an opportunity to blame the fire department for not bringing the problem to its attention.
There are areas in the United States which have taken steps to alleviate these problems. The Dallas County, Texas, Jail System has made considerable progress over the last few years in this field. The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, under Sheriff Carl Thomas, operates three separate detention centers. Two of them are maximum security and high-rise and the third is a minimum security unit of three stories that was at one time the county hospital. The New Jail houses 700 to 800 inmates. The Old Jail houses 400 to 450 inmates and the Woodlawn Center, 70 to 120. The total jail population has at times gone over 2000. With this many inmates, a small fire can create a big problem.
Deputy sheriffs in Dallas County have for many years had some fire training. The reason for this is that the director of the Fire Academy and the director of the Sheriffs Academy are one and the same individual. Each basic class has fire training to show the members what they would face in a fire situation. After four hours of classroom theory, the students go to the fire field, where they go through fire suppression in a simulated cell block both with and without protective gear. They soon learn that there is a difference going into smoke and fire with a mask than without one.
The attitude of most of the field officers is that they have no desire to be a fire fighter. All they want to do is work traffic and the crowd and let the fire fighters put out the fire. The detention officers see the need of more extensive fire training.
Even with this meager amount of fire training, an officer faced with a fire rescue situation knows his limitations and will better be able to protect himself. It could save his life!
Fire carts designed
The sheriff’s department designed fire carts for each of the three facilities. Each unit has a set of hand tools, bolt cutters, prybars, pike pole, hand lights, five demand-type masks, 100 feet of 2 1/2-inch, double-jacket hose wyed to two 75-foot, 1 1/2-inch lines, water and CO2 extinguishers, and extra sections of hose. In the so-called “fire station,” are five sets of turnout gear—coats, boots, gloves and helmets for the fire suppression team. The fire carts are designed so the components can be taken off and, if elevators are out, carried up stairs to the fire floor.
The county fire marshal and the fire safety officer recommended that a minimum of two demand-type masks be kept at all times in the control centers on each floor. One would be for the control officer to wear and one for a guard to wear if he had to make rescues or release inmates from the interior cells in heavy smoke. This has not been done because of budget problems.
In the Old Jail, the fire cart is kept on the sixth floor, which is the first floor on which prisoners are housed. At the start, it was kept on the first floor, but it was later decided that to speed the response to an emergency area, it should be kept in the jail complex. The cart is locked behind steel doors to keep the inmates from having access to the tools, which could be dangerous weapons. The same idea has been carried out in the other two jails.
Special chains used
To safely and quickly remove prisoners, the control centers have on each jail floor sufficient lengths of 50-foot chain with 24 flex-cuffs attached so all of the inmates on that floor can be chained and removed down the fire escape to receiving areas. The inmate steps out of the cell, puts his hand through the cuffs and the guard tightens them.
Actual test drills have been run by the jailers, using various inmate tanks to see how the system worked. It worked fairly well providing there is a fair degree of cooperation from the inmates. Guards run a large penal institution only with the cooperation of the prisoners. The best time on these drills in the high-rise units is 12 minutes.
Fire drills at the minimum security unit are run twice a month and all inmates are evacuated. The best time for evacuating the minimum security unit has been three minutes. These inmates do not have to be chained as they are usually on work-release programs or trusty status.
A special 20-hour institutional fire suppression course was put on by the Dallas County Fire Academy in cooperation with the Dallas Fire Department Academy. Twenty detention supervisors and fire suppression officers completed the course. The course covered chemistry of fire, fire prevention, inspection, extinguishers, hose types and loads, hose evolutions, fire suppression streams, sprinklers and standpipes, respiratory equipment, fire attack and suppression, rescue, ventilation, back drafts, heat radiation, overhaul and salvage, cooperation with fire departments, and four hours of fire fighting on the drill field.
The Dallas Fire Department had each platcxm of its first-alarm companies visit the three facilities and receive a briefing on the jail standard operating procedure. After the fire department ran these drills, some of its original plans needed to be changed.
Dallas jail staff personnel now know that it will take at least 8 to 10 minutes for the first-alarm companies to actually have fire fighters and equipment on the fire floor. Therefore, it is going to be up to the jail personnel to rescue and fight a holding action until they are relieved by Dallas fire fighters.
Regular inspection goes with the program. The three detention centers are regularly inspected by County Fire Marshal John Bement and City of Dallas fire inspectors, as well as detention supervisors and safety officers. In an inspection of a section that had been recently painted by trusty painters, it was found that they had painted over the hose cabinets. The paint had dried, sealing the cabinets shut. It took considerable effort to get the hose cabinets unstuck. If there had been no inspection and there had been a fire, it would have been embarrassing.
The Dallas County Jail standard fire operating procedure is as follows:
- When there is a fire, the fire alarm is sounded and the sheriff’s dispatcher is notified.
- The dispatcher notifies the Dallas Fire Department by hot line.
- Prisoners are removed from the danger area by the floor officers.
- Building maintenance is notified to stop air circulation and start blowers.
- The fire fighting team suits up and moves the fire cart to the emergency floor or to the floor below.
- A jail supervisor with a full set of keys goes to the main gate and awaits the arrival of the fire department. He remains with the fire chief during the entire operation so that there will be no delay opening doors.
- On all fire matters, all jail personnel will follow the orders of the fire chief.
To date there has been no major test of the Dallas County procedure and it is hoped that there never will be. If there is a major fire in the Dallas County Jail and there is a loss of life, Sheriff Thomas cannot be accused of not preparing. The standard operating procedure may not work as it is hoped and there may be much more confusion than is estimated, but the results will be a lot better than if nothing was ever planned.