Prisons need special consideration

Prisons need special consideration

Because secure prisons are designed to keep people inside, by their very nature they pose different challenges for fire safety when compared to museums and other similar types of secure but accessible buildings.

There are many different functional areas/buildings, or sections of buildings, in a prison including workshops, stores, education, laundries, sports, religious, medical, administration and the sleeping accommodation. In most of these areas, escape from a fire, while being controlled, is possible without requiring special consideration. Special consideration for appropriate fire protection systems is needed where prisoners are locked into their accommodation, and potentially, in the medical unit.

Means of escape

Irrespective of any code, one of the fundamental requirements when designing a building in terms of fire safety is for the occupants to be able to move freely away from a fire. This is, of course, not possible when the purpose of the building is to keep the occupants secured. Like most fire safety objectives, the main purpose behind the guidance is to maintain a reasonable level of life safety in the event of a fire.

In most fire situations, the aim is to provide a way for people to escape to a safe location, normally outside the building. In the case of prisons, escape is not really the right term to be using, nor indeed should the end point be outside the building, unless it is a secure area.

Hence a slightly different approach is required. During the day it is normal for prisoners to be in ‘association’ areas, or in workshops, educational or sports areas. A fire at this time is unlikely to cause a major threat to life – people will be able to move freely away from the threat to a point of exit where an unlocking procedure will be in place.

The guidance considers that the worst time for a fire to occur would be at night when staffing levels are low and the occupants are asleep and locked inside their cells. A fire in a cell is designed to be contained in the cell in which it starts, and measures should be in place to:

  • Provide sufficient time for staff to evacuate inmates from cells not involved in a fire before smoke enters these cells.
  • Provide sufficient time to enable staff to remove the occupant of a cell on fire, before conditions of access to the cell become hazardous.
  • Enable staff to attack the fire in safety.
  • Prevent the spread of fire or damage by smoke and heat to areas beyond what is immediately involved.
  • Smoke control

The other objectives are met by introducing smoke control into the building. For this to work, a design-size fire needs to be adopted and should be included within a fire engineering brief and recorded within the fire strategy. 

Sprinklers are, however, a good fire control system which, if adopted early in the design stage, offer distinct advantages. Periods of fire resistance could be reduced, and travel distances could be increased, leading potentially to a reduction in the number of stairs. Compartment sizes could be increased, and smoke vent requirements removed.