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Fire Safety in a Correctional Setting
By Bryan Avila, TDCJ Correctional Training Instructor - Sergeant of Correctional Officers
Published: 03/17/2014


One of the most, if not the most, dangerous situations in a correctional setting is a fire. Our nation’s correctional facilities, for the most part, are constructed of steel, concrete and bricks. Windows either do not open or are designed to open very little due to security concerns and our mandate of providing public safety. Natural ventilation is greatly reduced. As a result of these building designs, what we have is either a chimney or an oven that we work in.

There are safeguards built in with the building design such as sprinklers and hose reels/ fire hoses as well as fire extinguishers available for use throughout the facilities and it is imperative that we know not only where they are located, but how to use them effectively as well.

A fire that starts in one area of a correctional facility can spread relatively slowly based on the location and fuel available, but the smoke will spread much faster. Those that have perished as a result of a fire in a correctional facility have not died from burning, but from smoke inhalation.

Let’s take a look at some of the basic components of a fire.

Fire Tetrahedron and Classes of Fire:

We have all heard about the Fire Triangle: fuel, oxygen and heat. However, for a fire to develop, it must have 4 elements: fuel, oxygen, heat and a chemical chain reaction. These four elements are known as the Fire Tetrahedron.

Solids and liquids, in its natural state, will not burn as a flame. It is the combination of the heat and oxygen that will take the solid/liquid and transform it through a chemical chain reaction into a gas that will in turn burn as a flame.

Picture this: you light a candle (or bon fire) and watch the flame. When you are looking at the flame you will notice that the flame itself is not touching wick (or log). What is burning is the gas that is just above that is the result of the chemical chain reaction. Same principle applies to a liquid. If we interfere with any of the four parts of the fire tetrahedron the fire will be extinguished.

Classes of Fire

Class A: A Class A fire is comprised of ordinary combustibles. Wood, paper, plastics and even human bodies are all examples of a Class A fire. This class can be extinguished with water.

Class B: A Class B fire is comprised of flammable liquids/oils. Either a class ABC fire extinguisher or BC fire extinguisher can be used to combat the fire. Smothering the fire in order to take away the oxygen can also be done.

Class C: A Class C fire is comprised of energized electrical equipment (it has to have a current going through it). Either a class ABC or BC fire extinguisher can be utilized to combat the fire. If you remove the power source (unplug the item, flip the breaker, etc) it will change the class of fire from a Class C to a Class A (unplug burning fan and you now have burning plastic).

Class D: A Class D fire is comprised of combustible metals and combustible metal alloys. This class of fire can only be put out by a Class D fire extinguisher (Type I: Sodium Chloride or Type II: Copper based dry powder)

Class K: Class K fires are fires that involve vegetable oils, animal oils, or fats in cooking appliances. This is for commercial kitchens, including those found in restaurants, cafeterias, and caterers.

So why do offenders start fires? There are multiple reasons why offenders start fires. Some of these are:

  • Harass staff – Do I need to say more?
  • Aid in an escape – Starting a fire in one area of a facility will attract staff attention there therefore exposing another section of the facility.
  • Suicide – Some offenders will start a fire in order to commit suicide
  • Riot – Fires are a normal part of a riot. It creates havoc by destroying property and diverting the attention of responding staff to the area of the fire in order for the rioters to achieve their primary goal (murder, retaliation against other offenders, etc)
  • Pyromaniac/Arson – Some offenders just like fire and use it to their amusement
How Offenders Start Fires Without a Flame

There are many ways in which an offender can start a fire without a flame. Some of the most common methods include steel wool, eyeglasses, batteries, pencils, friction and chemicals.

Steel Wool:

An offender can start a fire by using steel wool in conjunction with a battery. Take the steel wool and attach some of it to the positive end of the battery along with the negative end of the battery and enough heat will be created to start a fire. A paper product must also be used with this method.


Eyeglasses can be used as a magnifying glass in conjunction with the sun in order to start a fire. Just think about what we did as kids…same principle.


Batteries, in conjunction with either steel wool or razor blades can be used to start a fire. When used with razor blades, it will require two batteries and two razor blades. Once the connection is made between both razor blades, enough heat is generated to start a fire or light a cigarette.


Break a pencil open and remove the graphite lead core. Insert a piece in of the lead in both sides of an outlet and attach a third piece to a small rope made out of twisted toilet paper. Lower the third piece onto the two pieces that are protruding from the outlet and this will close the circuit causing the toilet paper to catch on fire. When soap is gently rubbed onto the toilet paper, it creates a nice long burning wick that can be used for extended periods.


Some offenders are former military with survival training as well as others that were boy scouts. Give them some wood and it is survival 101 for them.


In most correctional facilities it will be the offenders that do all the janitorial work. This will involve the use of chemicals. An offender that has the knowledge can find a way to mix the right amount of chemicals and of which types in order to create a fire, or worse, a bomb. This is one of the reasons why chemicals are so tightly controlled within correctional facilities.

There are other ways in which offenders can start fires that may be more complex but the ones listed here are just the most common ones.

Fire Suppression vs. Evacuation

There is a fine line between when you go from fire suppression to evacuation. Our job is to maintain offenders in specific locations for periods of time. Whether they are in the housing area (cell or dorm), at work, education, recreation or dinning area, our responsibility is to keep them safe and in that particular area for a predetermined amount of time. They are not permitted to come and go as they please.

So how do we know when we have to evacuate them from a specific location when a fire breaks out? For the most part, it will be a judgment call. There is no specific set standard as to when to try to put the fire out and when you get every one out of the area. What I teach is “if you can’t get it put out with one fire extinguisher, get out!”

Make sure that you know your agency’s policy regarding fire prevention and evacuation routes by heart and follow them every time.

To understand at what point we go from fire suppression to evacuation we must first understand the stages of a fire.

There are 5 stages to a fire:
  1. Incipient
  2. Growth
  3. Flashover
  4. Fully Developed
  5. Hot Smoldering

This is the initial stage of a fire. During this stage the fuel, oxygen, heat and chemical chain reaction combine to start the fire.


During this stage the fire is starting to gain momentum by consuming the fuel that is available to it. Temperature in the area starts to increase until it reaches the flashover point (800-1200 degrees depending on the type of fuel present)


The flashover is the most dangerous stage of a fire. During this stage the atmospheric temperature has increased to the point that all fuel present in the area will burst into flames. Firefighters are killed every year during flashovers.

Fully Developed:

During the fully developed stage all available fuel is burning simultaneously. Temperatures exceed 1100 degrees in the area and the toxic atmosphere is lethal.

Hot Smoldering:

During this stage all fuel is nearly consumed. Visible flames are no longer present and all we have left is charred remains in a smoldering state. The fire may start grow again if more fuel or oxygen is introduced.

It is imperative that if you are going to attempt to put a fire out it be done no later than the beginning portion of the growth stage. Remember, if you can not put the fire out with one fire extinguisher, get out!

Special Considerations:

There are special considerations that we must take into account when dealing with a fire in a correctional setting. These include location of the fire, toxic atmospheres and backdrafts.

  • Location. We are going to deal with a fire differently in a recreation yard differently than we would in a dinning area, cellblock, open dorm style housing area or in a cell. Building design will be key in how to combat the fire.
  • Toxic atmosphere. Depending on what material is burning you may have chemicals such as cyanide, PCB, dioxins, etc in the atmosphere as a result of the fire. If the fire is located in a chemical storage room, do not attempt to put the fire out. Your primary goal in this instance is evacuate.
  • Backdrafts. This is the most dangerous of all. A backdraft occurs when the oxygen in the area has been reduced to the point that it can no longer sustain a visible flame. However, the gases inside the area as well as the atmospheric temperature remain higher than the flash point. If oxygen is re-introduced an explosion may/will occur. So how do you know if a backdraft is possible? Look for the warning signs.

Warning signs of a backdraft:
  1. The surrounding environment will be extremely hot
  2. Puffs of yellow/brown are wafting out from under door or small openings and getting sucked back in
  3. Windows appear black or brown when viewed from the outside
  4. Doors or windows are rattling
  5. Soot is present on the inside of the window and in cracks

What to do in case of a fire

Now that we have covered the basics, what do you do if you have a fire in your area of responsibility? First thing first:

  • Notify everyone that you have a fire.
  • Make sure that you provide location of the fire (be specific) as well as the class of fire (this will ensure proper fire suppression equipment is utilized).
  • NEVER attempt to put out a fire before letting someone know where you are
  • If you must evacuate, use the primary evacuation route as specified at your facility. If the primary evacuation route is not available, use the secondary evacuation route. Most agency policies will state that a supervisor may not contradict an evacuation route/decision unless they are present at the scene. Life safety must come first.
  • If an offender(s) refuse to evacuate, make a note of their location and continue the evacuation of everyone else. The lives of many others far outweigh the lives of a few.


When it comes down to what equipment to use, you must be very familiar with what equipment is available at your facility. There will be fire extinguishers within easy access to everyone and located appropriately. There may even be fire hoses available for use. Make sure that you are familiar with this equipment and its proper use.

Make it a habit to check your fire suppression equipment every day while working. If there is a fire extinguisher, check the pressure gauge to ensure that it is charged. Also check the hose and inspect it for cracks and dry rot. Look inside the nozzle for any obstructions. Give the hose a turn to ensure that it has not become loose thereby not allowing for proper operation. If there are any defects or deficiencies with the fire extinguisher, notify a supervisor so that it can be taken care of.

If there is a fire hose (either on a reel or in a cabinet) make sure that you know how to use it. It is imperative that you not only inspect it on a daily basis for deficiencies, but that you also know the maximum length of the hose.

Another item to keep in mind is a pair of Kevlar Tactical Gloves. Most Kevlar Tactical Gloves are not only cut resistant, but they are also heat/flame resistant. Having a pair of Kevlar Tactical Gloves available to you may allow you to grab onto something that is too hot to handle with your bare hands. Kevlar Tactical Gloves will offer you some added protection in the case of a fire for a limited amount of time. It might be that the Kevlar Tactical Gloves gave you just the time that you needed in order to get everyone out. As correctional professionals our primary mandate is to provide public safety. A close second is life safety to visitors/volunteers, staff and offenders and it is done in that order: public, visitors/volunteers, staff and offender. Performing security checks is an essential function of what we do every day.

It is as a result of security checks that we can prevent fires, suicides, assaults (physical and sexual) and maintain order and discipline within our institutions. Remember that we are not fire fighters. We are correctional professionals. Even if you happen to be a fire fighter on the outside, while on the inside, you are a correctional officer and your primary responsibility is the safety of the individuals inside, not the fire.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author Bryan Avila started working as a Police Officer in 1994 while attending Norwich University in Northfield, VT. In 1999 he began working for the Vermont Dept of Corrections while still working as a Part-Time Police Officer. In 2007 he left public service until 2009 when he began working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is currently a Correctional Training Instructor- Sergeant of Correctional Officers, at the TDCJ Region I Training Academy located in Huntsville, TX.

Other articles by Avila:


  1. bryavila on 01/31/2017:

    Thank you for your comment. Although California may have full time Fire Captains as you stated, the vast majority of the states do not have that same luxury. Thank you for teaching me something new!

  2. mimejia49 on 04/20/2016:

    The statement in the last sentence "even if you are a firefighter on the outside, while inside you are a correctional officer". Is very inaccurate. Here in California we do have peace officer Fire Captains that handle the fire suppression duties.They are full time Fire Captains. Please get your facts right. Thank you.

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