Fire in the Jailhouse

On April 21, 1930, the deadliest correctional facility fire in U.S. history ravaged the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, killing more than 300 men. Ever since that time, the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and other model codes have required new and existing correctional facilities to be constructed of limited- or non-combustible materials, and to be provi...

By Michael Abrams, Construction Manager, Fire Protection Management, Inc., Las Vegas May 1, 2003

On April 21, 1930, the deadliest correctional facility fire in U.S. history ravaged the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, killing more than 300 men. Ever since that time, the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and other model codes have required new and existing correctional facilities to be constructed of limited- or non-combustible materials, and to be provided with automatic sprinkler and detection systems.

While these two requirements would appear to be complementary, they can pose challenges for the engineer, because fire-resistant building materials can restrict the options for distributing fire-safety systems throughout the facility. Moreover, there is another paradox in correctional facility design. Security measures require locked doors and restricted egress, the exact opposite of what fire and life-safety codes attempt to provide for other types of occupancies.

NFPA 101 defines a correctional facility as a place that provides sleeping accommodations for four or more persons who, in the event of a fire, are generally prevented from self-preservation because of security measures beyond their control. This includes correctional institutions, detention facilities, community residential centers, training schools, work camps and substance abuse centers. And meeting the unique design demands of correctional facilities depends on prior experience.

The value of experience

Problems tend to arise on these projects—construction delays, cost overruns, failure to meet owner and user expectations—often due to building team inexperience. In fact, these problems are often rooted in the design and construction team selection process itself, which fails to pre-qualify firms and proposed project personnel based on their past experience with correctional facilities (see “Choosing the Contractors,” p. 50).

Correctional facilities are built through a wide variety of project delivery methods. They are often design-build and rely on performance-based specification. Or, they can depend on prescriptive specifications that clearly define the systems designs, with a separate construction team contracted to build.

But no matter what process is used, success depends on a team of qualified, experienced professionals who can provide valuable information about correctional facilities like the following:

  • Familiarity with the circulation patterns.

  • Awareness of the unique problems.

  • Understanding of staff and detainee needs, resulting in designs that run efficiently and protect all involved.

  • Appreciation of the benefit of post-occupancy evaluation to determine what systems function effectively.

  • Knowledge of the applicable codes and standards.

But above all, experienced designers understand the nature of the different types of correctional facilities. Consequently, they are qualified to determine the level of system required.

Determining system needs

NFPA 101 classifies correctional facilities into five categories for determining the level of life safety required, ranging from the least restrictive, Use Condition 1, where the occupants are capable of self-preservation and are not restricted from exiting the facility, to the most restrictive, Use Condition 5, where residents are locked in their sleeping rooms and movement to an adjoining smoke compartment is impeded by locked doors.

Fire safety for inmates and public security are not necessarily contradictory. Safety from fire involves far more than just unimpeded egress from a building. NFPA 101 addresses this issue with the total concept approach. To avoid the need to evacuate, a protect-in-place or defend-in-place strategy restricts the spread of fire and smoke from the room of origin by utilizing the following systems:

  • Designs that address issues of material combustion and division of the facility into separate smoke compartments.

  • Provisions for detection, alarm and extinguishment.

  • Prevention and planning, including staff training and drills.

  • Provisions for the safety of responding firefighters, the general public and the occupants of the facility.

In many cases, relocating occupants from the area of origin to a secure area within the facility is the practical solution for protecting the occupants inside and the public outside. Compartmentalization plays a key role. It is defined as using the building construction and fire-protection systems to detect and confine a fire; that is, to contain the migration of smoke and fire within the zone of origin. Smoke-zone boundaries are selected to present controllable, reasonably-sized areas, with at least two smoke zones on each floor to minimize the movement of inmates during an emergency.

Compartmentalization is achieved through a system of non-combustible or limited-combustible, smoke- and fire-resistive walls and floor-ceiling assemblies, with protected vertical and horizontal openings in these barriers. These features are further enhanced by early-warning and active-protection detection systems such as automatic sprinkler and smoke control.

Early Warning

Various options are available for early warning detection systems for correctional facilities, from the least preferred method—installing smoke detectors within individual cells—to installing air-sampling or aspirating systems. For all systems, vandalism prevention, maintenance and testing are major considerations.

Smoke detectors can be installed in individual cells, but vandalism may prove to be a continual problem for the facility operator. A variety of perforated steel security covers are manufactured to protect the smoke detectors. But depending on the size of openings in the covers, smoke entry into a detector’s chamber may be impeded. The smoke detector and cover should be tested and listed by an approved testing laboratory to ensure the smoke detector’s actuation time will not be impaired.

Most fires in correctional facilities are started by inmates as a means of drawing attention to themselves, to cause confusion when planning an escape or simply to disrupt normal operations. An inmate could block the openings in the security covers, preventing smoke from entering the detection chamber. In addition, security covers will not prevent the inmate from damaging the detector with liquid or any available foreign object that can penetrate the holes.

Another design option is to install smoke detectors in the return exhaust ductwork serving the cells. Designs that utilize common ductwork to more than one cell will often have return exhaust ducts in a secured chase. Either an appropriately listed area smoke detector or a duct-mounted model can be installed in the return air path, where it can sample the exhaust air. Since the inmates don’t have access to the chase, the risk of vandalism is minimal.

Keep in mind that smoke detectors are listed for a minimum and a maximum airflow. The designer should calculate the volume of air through the return exhaust chase or duct to ensure that the detector installed is listed for the application.

But even with this type of system, an inmate can still foil the detector by blocking the return exhaust grill.

A viable alternative is an air-sampling or aspirating system, pictured below. Sampling ports in the cells can be concealed in light fixtures, ventilation grills or some other location where inmates will not detectable it. While the initial installation costs for an air-sampling system may be higher than for other detection methods, the lower cost of maintenance and testing make it cost-effective.

Another major problem for any facility, but especially troublesome for correctional institutions, is the nuisance alarm. NFPA 101 does not permit the use of pre-signal systems in these facilities, but it does accept the use of a more reliable form of delayed notification known as positive alarm sequence.

NFPA 101 requires an alarm signal to be acknowledged within 15 seconds at a constantly attended location. Then, trained personnel have 180 seconds to investigate the alarm. If the system is not reset within this 180 seconds, immediate occupant notification is required. If a second alarm is received during the investigation period, immediate occupant notification is required.

Fire sprinklers and smoke control

Tamper-resistant institutional-type sprinkler heads should be installed in inmate cells. They are substantially more expensive than the standard type, and listed protective covers for sprinkler heads can be used for areas under constant supervision.

However, even with institutional sprinkler heads and protective covers, vandalism can still result in a discharge. Pre-action or double interlock pre-action sprinkler systems—typically found in computer rooms, libraries, museums and cold storage facilities—offer an alternative to standard wet sprinkler systems. Pre-action systems are similar to dry-pipe systems in that water is prevented from entering the piping system until actuation of either a fire-alarm initiating device or activation of an automatic sprinkler head. They provide protection from accidental discharge.

In a double interlock pre-action system, the discharge of an automatic sprinkler system in an individual cell would only occur when the smoke detector serving that cell initiates an alarm and when the fusible element of a sprinkler serving the cell is activated. It is imperative to obtain approval from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) prior to beginning any creative design alternatives.

Smoke-management systems in correctional facilities are designed to provide a tenable environment for relocation of occupants, from the zone of origin to an adjacent smoke-control zone—in other words, a safe refuge within the facility.

But despite the fact that smoke control is a critical component to preventing the spread of products of combustion, especially for the defend-in-place strategies used in correctional facilities, it is too often the case that these systems are improperly designed or constructed.

Once again, NFPA 101 is a valuable resource. Section provides a method of calculating smoke exhaust so as to limit smoke from accumulating less than 10 ft. above the highest walking surface within the zone of origin. The smoke-exhaust system should be initiated upon detection of smoke, activation of water-flow switches or by direct manual operation from a central control. Ideally, the zone adjacent to area of origin should be pressurized, further preventing smoke migration.

The compartmentalization approach calls for the construction of smoke barriers, with fire and smoke dampers installed at all protected openings penetrating the smoke compartments. And finally, smoke-tight doors must be installed at all openings between compartments.

The design process

Prior to developing a schematic design, owners and their criminal justice consultants should prepare the architecture pro-gram or pre-architectural study. The architecture program will define operation and management requirements, inmate capacity analysis, square footage requirements and desired staffing patterns. A preliminary yet comprehensive fire safety plan is then developed. This is a written policy and procedure, to be approved by the local fire authority having jurisdiction. The fire safety plan specifies how the staff will respond to a fire emergency to ensure the safety of the inmates, visitors and staff.

Once the schematic design phase begins, a fire and life-safety report will be prepared by the fire-protection engineer. An experienced engineer, knowledgeable in the relevant codes and applicable systems, can reduce the overall cost of the facility by applying a unified, effective and creative design to the fire-protection systems. A complex and conservative approach to the design can increase the cost of a building up to 5% or more.

All of the stakeholders in the facility, including the owner, architect, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer and the AHJs, should be active participants in this process and must be in agreement with the concepts defined in the report. The construction of a correctional facility is a team effort with all stakeholders actively participating throughout the duration of the project.

Contemplate Contractors in Your Spec

Concerned with the legal pitfalls of overly stringent bidder qualification requirements, many owners will mistakenly offer a request for bid that is open to all interested contractors. All too often, the low bidder is inexperienced in the complex issues associated with constructing a correctional facility. The “savings” are often cancelled out by construction delays and cost overruns.

The bid package should contain stringent pre-qualification requirements for the general contractor, and for all major trades, such as the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, security detention, fire alarm and automatic fire sprinkler contractors. Qualifications should include a list of correctional facilities of similar size and scope with verifiable references for each project.

Managing the Process

Early involvement of all team members on a correctional facility project is a must. Fire-protection systems, in particular, require special care to keep piping and sprinklers, alarm conduit and devices, and mechanical ductwork inaccessible to inmates. At the same time, the noncombustible construction that is mandated in these facilities—cast-in-place concrete, pre-cast concrete segments or concrete-filled masonry—provides limited space for infrastructure. The interstitial spaces and chases are premium, and often, the last trade in the facility will struggle to find space for its systems. Routing of infrastructure must be considered during the schematic design phase, with preliminary cost estimates provided to the owner before moving on to the design development phase.

Construction should not begin until the drawings have been reviewed and approved by all parties. For example, installation of additional smoke detectors, notification appliances or fire sprinklers can be difficult and costly after concrete ceilings have been poured. A good design coordinator will review the shop drawings of all trades, and each trade should also review the other trades’ shop drawings to verify coordination in very tight and critical areas. All too frequently, an electrical contractor will have made provisions to route conduit in an accessible chase only to find the chase is filled with ductwork, automatic sprinkler branch lines and plumbing. It is critical for the owner, architect, all contractors, AHJs, engineers and construction managers to attend frequent coordination meetings. A practice that has proven successful is to have each trade sign the shop drawings of the other trades.