ARCHIVED – Researchers at IRC investigate fire-detection alternatives for Canadian correctional facilities v9n3-3

Volume 9, Number 3, September 2004

Archived Content

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Nuisance fire alarms can be a problem in Canadian correctional facilities when inmates intentionally activate or damage in-cell smoke detectors, which are currently required under the National Building Code of Canada. These alarms result in increased risk to guards and inmates while the detector is out of service, time lost as guards investigate the cause, and significant costs to examine and replace damaged detectors.

To find a solution, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) initiated a project with researchers in IRC's Fire Research Program and Ken Richardson Fire Technologies Inc. They set up a series of full-scale tests in temporarily vacated correctional facilities in Kingston, Ontario, to determine if in-cell smoke detectors could be moved outside of cells and still provide an equivalent level of fire protection. In particular, they were interested in ensuring that the risk to inmates in the cell of fire origin would not exceed critical limits for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and temperature if the detectors were located outside the cell.

The researchers developed various test scenarios that would be representative of the fires that actually occur in cells, while still posing a reasonable challenge for the detectors expected to respond. These scenarios involved different fire sources (such as CSC-issue mattresses and clothing, and newspaper) for both open-front and closed-front cells. Depending on whether the cell had an open or closed front, the researchers varied the location of the fire source. They then recorded the times of response for in-cell, outside-cell and duct detectors, and measured the conditions inside the cell of fire origin for a full 15 minutes.

In all scenarios, the researchers concluded that early detection with smoke detectors in an exhaust duct adjacent to a cell was equivalent to that provided by in-cell smoke detectors in both open-front and closed-front cells. Specifically, the researchers found that moving smoke detectors from inside to outside open-front cells, to either a duct or the corridor, did not affect reaction times enough to allow critical conditions to build up in the cell where the fire originated. For closed-front cells, they found that only smoke detectors relocated to an exhaust duct provided an equivalent level of fire detection. In some cases, smoke detectors moved to the corridor allowed critical conditions to build beyond acceptable levels in the cell of fire origin.

With the results from this project, CSC now has the technical information it needs to propose a reliable, cost-effective alternative to in-cell smoke detectors to the authority having jurisdiction.

Specific questions about this project and its findings can be directed to Dr. Joseph Su at (613) 993-9616, fax (613) 954-0483, or e-mail