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DEFCON and Correctional Facilities
By Robert Kravitz, President AlturaSolutions
Published: 05/16/2016

Bacteria Many correctional facility administrators have likely never heard of DEFCON in the context of cleaning or, if they have, are not exactly sure what it is. And, unfortunately, a Google search may create even more confusion. You will find the word DEFCON used for everything from the U.S. Armed Forces’ levels of defense readiness to computer hacking conventions to a company that makes a line of hot sauces.

For our purposes, DEFCON refers to Defense Conditions for Cleaning. The U.S. military DEFCON ranking system was developed by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1959 to indicate risk levels and the degree of readiness needed to meet each level’s circumstances and threats. When used for cleaning, DEFCON is a ranking system that identifies four infection risk levels. These range from very low risk (DEFCON 1) to the highest risk (DEFCON 4).*

Understanding these four risk levels can help determine what cleaning procedures and products are necessary to address each risk level.


Before defining each DEFCON level, we first need to address how correctional administrators can determine infection risk levels in their facilities. Years ago, in order to do so, they would likely have to swab a fixture or surface, put the swab in a Petri dish, and wait to see what grew—a slow process that could take three or more days for the risks to be known.

Today, administrators have available to them ATP rapid monitoring systems for this purpose. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is found in all living cells. When large amounts are found on a surface, it can indicate there is a serious risk of infection. For administrators, it means the surface should be cleaned and possibly disinfected.

An ATP rapid monitoring system looks like a television remote control with a small screen on it. The system quantifies how much ATP is present on the surface being tested. ATP monitoring systems are relatively inexpensive, available from some janitorial distributors, easy to use, and results are typically known in about 15 seconds.

Different ATP monitors may have their own ranking system. However, each will indicate if small, safe, moderate, or very high amounts of ATP are present on a surface. Administrators can then use these readings to determine DEFCON levels. For instance, a small or safe ATP reading would likely indicate a low DEFCON level.

In addition to ATP readings, DEFCON can refer to community risk levels as well. As an example, if public health officials note that a certain type of flu is sweeping the area or within a correctional facility, this could also warrant a DEFCON ranking.


Now that we understand how administrators can determine the risk of infection on a surface, let’s discuss the four DEFCON levels and what steps should be taken at each level.

DEFCON 1: No dangerous infection or pathogen risk exists. Cleaning personnel should follow proper cleaning procedures using neutral and all-purpose cleaners.

DEFCON 2: A contagious disease, infection, or virus is present in a community or area but no specific threat is present in the correctional facility. However, because the threat is real, this level requires that light-duty, all-purpose cleaners be replaced with products that have greater cleaning efficacy. Sanitizers or disinfectants should be used. Focus should be on cleaning and disinfecting known “germ centers” such as restrooms, floors, horizontal surfaces, and cross-contamination “touch” points, e.g. door handles, railings, etc.

DEFCON 3: A disease or virus is now present in the correctional facility. More specific and extensive measures must be implemented. More thorough cleaning and cleaning frequencies of all surface areas should be increased significantly including walls, counters, fixtures, touch points, and floors.

DEFCON 4: A dangerous biohazard is present. This situation calls for experts who are trained in hazardous agent removal.

Cleaning Procedures

To address DEFCON 1, 2, and 3 risk levels, areas where infection risks are present should not be cleaned manually with rags and cleaners and disinfectants. Manual cleaning increases the likelihood that contagions will not be effectively removed but instead spread from one surface to another or transferred to the cleaning worker, risking their health.

Rather, a no-touch or, as it is called when used in scientific testing, a high-flow fluid extraction system is recommended. Essentially, the system applies cleaners and disinfectants to the risk area; after the disinfectant is allowed to work effectively, the same area is pressure rinsed, and then, the most important step, moisture and contaminants are vacuumed up.

Healthcare experts suggest that using this system is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of infection. In tests where C. diff was present in a rehabilitation center, which would likely warrant a DEFCON 3 ranking, when this type of cleaning system was used, the number of C. diff cases was reduced by nearly 90 percent.**


In many ways, correctional facilities are their own enclosed cities, and infections can be very serious and spread rapidly. The best way to keep correctional facilities healthy is through prevention of these infections and diseases. Understanding the risk levels for infection, taking the appropriate cleaning measures, and using the proper tools and equipment are the best ways to prevent the spread of disease in a correctional facility. Paul South is the President and General Manager of Valley Janitorial, based in Hamilton, OH a 30-year-old janitorial supply company.

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Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infections can range from mild to life-threatening. In examining the disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that, in 2011, C. diff was responsible for approximately a half million infections in the United States; approximately 29,000 cases resulted in death within 30 days of contracting this disease.

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* These DEFCON rankings for infection risks differ from those used by the military, where DEFCON 1 refers to the highest risk and DEFCON 5 refers to the lowest risk.
** C. diff is a bacterium naturally found in the environment, often spread by food or contaminated surfaces, which can grow in the intestines. It releases toxins that can be life-threatening if not properly treated. Tests were conducted in the Tustin Rehabilitation Hospital, Tustin, California.

Editors Note: Corrections.com author, Robert Kravitz, is president of AlturaSolutions Communications and is a writer for the professional cleaning, building, healthcare, and educational industries. He may be reached at rkravitz@rcn.com

Other articles by Robert Kravitz


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