Avoiding Trial by Fire: How Correctional Facilities Can Stay Safe

By Reichelt, Richard | Corrections Today, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Avoiding Trial by Fire: How Correctional Facilities Can Stay Safe


Reichelt, Richard, Corrections Today


The ever-increasing adoption of the Uniform Building Code (UBC) Standard 7-2, (1997) "Fire Tests of Door Assemblies," will go a long way in preventing accidental institutional deaths.

For many years, building code agencies in the United States supported fire test methods that could not be justified as realistic examples of what really happens during a fire. The test standards to which they referred did not come close to the actual physics of a fire accident, though useful research has been around for more than a quarter of a century. Most people remain unaware of the situation, as well as the significance and life-saving benefits the change to "positive-pressure" fire tests of door assemblies will bring.

Positive Pressure: Positive Results

The new standard, generally referred to as the "positive-pressure testing" standard, addresses the occurrence of the pressure differential, which has a dramatic effect on the passage of fire, smoke and hot toxic gases during fires. In the old test methods, door assemblies were tested with the furnace pressure slightly lower than the outside ambient pressure. This resulted in suction of cooler air into the furnace. The accumulation of toxic smoke, which is a real-life situation in most buildings on fire, was not addressed. Toxic smoke accumulation builds up the pressure inside the rooms and corridors where flames are raging. In building fires, the hot gases of combustion actually are at a higher pressure than the surrounding atmospheric pressure. The door assemblies in a detention facility must act as barriers to the flames as well as the hot gases of combustion and toxic smoke. Otherwise, they can propagate the fire rapidly to other areas, increasing the danger to life and property. For this purpose, the doo r assemblies must be installed only after their performance is proved in a fire test that imitates the aforementioned scenario.

Because statistics indicate that there are more than 1.5 million people incarcerated in the United States, it is of paramount importance to incorporate adequate measures to ensure their safety and the safety of the thousands of employees who serve with great dedication in correctional institutions. The safety of these people deserves much greater attention than it receives, because unlike the general public, they are surrounded with security locks and other mechanisms that preclude an easy escape in the event of a fire.

Realizing the Risks, Finding Solutions

The public has a misconception that correctional facilities are massive concrete and steel structures with little inside to burn. The public imagines these facilities to be far removed from urban and suburban domiciles. Therefore, it finds the issue to be of little concern, or in short, "out of sight, out of mind." This popular misconception of correctional facilities tucked far away from the populace is promulgated by Hollywood movies, books, magazines and the media at large.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. With a large number of correctional facilities tucked in our midst, the safety of these facilities has to be everyone's concern. …

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Avoiding Trial by Fire: How Correctional Facilities Can Stay Safe
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