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The Heat is On: Fire Safety in NJDOC Faciltiies Could be a Matter of Life and Death
By Matt Schuman, New Jersey Department of Corrections
Published: 12/10/2018

Nj doc fire Christmas will be anything but merry if the circuitry supporting the lights decorating the house bursts into flames, leading to catastrophic consequences.

“As a firefighter, you cringe when you get called out for a fire, especially around the holidays, because you never want to see somebody’s house burning,” said Lieutenant Tom Nardelli, the New Jersey Department of Corrections fire marshal and a longtime volunteer with the Cedarville Fire Department in Cumberland County.

“Then you look around and see what might have been done that could have prevented the fire,” he continued. “For example, it’s no secret that Christmas lights can cause fires. Unfortunately, people tend to think that they can plug extension cords into extension cords into extension cords, and if the lights go on, it’s all good. A better approach is to use power strips with a built-in circuit breaker, refrain from plugging in more than three strings of lights together and avoid overloading outlets.

“I can’t overstate the importance of taking the necessary precautions when it comes to fire safety. Don’t wait until a disaster happens.”

Nardelli’s advice applies to the workplace as well as the home.

He, along with each facility’s institutional fire marshal, is responsible for making sure all state prisons comply with Division of Fire Safety regulations. However, that only begins to describe the scope of their responsibilities.

“Fire safety in the prisons has to be a top priority,” stated Nardelli, who became the NJDOC fire marshal in May 2018 after spending more than a decade as the institutional fire marshal at South Woods State Prison. “We have a lot of people in our institutions – employees, inmates, visitors, vendors, volunteers – so we need to be on top of our game when it comes to fire safety measures. That means training our staff on evacuations, the use of fire extinguishers and the avoidance of potential fire hazards.

“Take space heaters. I’ve had employees tell me they had a space heater at home that wasn’t working quite right, but they decided to bring it to the prison because their work area is chilly. Well, if the space heater isn’t safe at home, it’s not going to be safe at work, especially if it’s plugged into a power strip or placed under a wooden desk. On top of that, sometimes an employee leaves at the end of the day and forgets to turn off the space heater.”

Those are the kinds of issues Nardelli and the institutional fire marshals discuss during training sessions with staff.

Recruits at the Correctional Staff Training Academy learn about fire safety as part of their curriculum. In addition, both custody and civilian staff receive regularly scheduled training.

“Getting the word out on how to protect ourselves at work is one of the key responsibilities of the institutional fire marshals,” Nardelli said. “The first thing to know is where the fire extinguishers are located.

“If the fire is small enough that you think you can put it out, then grab the fire extinguisher and utilize it. If the scope of the fire is beyond that, get word out to everyone in the vicinity to evacuate, then find a custody staff member who can use his or her radio to make the proper notifications.”

In order to familiarize the various fire departments with nearby prisons, Nardelli encourages the fire marshals at each facility to schedule walk-throughs as well as drills with the local firefighters.

Lieutenant Justin Lilla, the institutional fire marshal at South Woods, noted that every NJDOC facility has a fire department – either paid or volunteer – in close proximity.

“In the event of a fire, our job is safety and security,” he said. “So let’s get everybody out of the area and let the people who have been trained to fight fires do their job.”

Nardelli also has asked all facilities to develop and maintain a detailed emergency evacuation plan.

“In the event of an actual emergency that requires an evacuation, we don’t want people to be asking where they’re supposed to go,” Nardelli said. “That’s why pre-planning is so important. Employees also need to know whose responsibility it is to be accountable for each unit. “Along those lines, when you go into a facility, you have to sign your name in a book. You don’t know how many people simply scribble on the line where they’re supposed to put their name. If there is a fire or some other emergency that requires an evacuation, that book can help us to determine who’s inside the prison so that we can account for everyone. If you put a scribble instead of your name in the book, how can anyone know that you need to be accounted for?”

That’s one of the reasons Nardelli advises the institutional fire marshals to do more than recite the safety rules and regulations.

“They need to explain to everyone why these regulations are important,” he concluded. “After all, you can replace belongings, and you can replace a building. You can’t replace a human life.”

Matt Schuman is a former newspaper reporter and editor who serves as the Public Information Office for the NJ Department of Corrections. He has been with NJDOC since 2000.


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