Always Unprepared

On August 6, at 2:12 p.m., a fire broke out in the Special Management Unit (SMU) South of the MetroWest Detention Center, one of the county's jails located in the marshy swamplands of west Miami-Dade. The SMU is an extra-secure wing in the jail that holds security-risk inmates: They may be in danger of attack, like jailed police officers, or they may be prone to escape or violence. The unit also holds a lot of "keep-separates," inmates who are not allowed to mix with other inmates because of known animosity. Apparently an inmate set his cell on fire and smoke poured into the common area, forcing panicked officers to coordinate a dangerous exchange: Hard-core inmates had to be moved out quickly and securely while a team of firefighters had to be moved in just as fast. Many officers worried that the fire might be a setup for an attack on a guard or inmate. Corrections officers battled the fire themselves until county firefighters arrived on the scene.By the time the blaze was under control fifteen corrections officers had been rushed to Kendall Regional Medical Center, where they were treated for smoke inhalation. Four stayed overnight. Inmate Jeffrey Flanders, awaiting trial on murder and cocaine possession charges, was arrested and charged with two counts of arson.

It was the biggest fire you never heard about. For whatever reason, the daily media never picked up the story, something Lois Spears, director of the county's Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, is relieved about. Not that she admits that it was newsworthy in the first place. "It wasn't anything that unusual," she says. About the only thing she remembered in detail when first contacted by New Times was that there was a dispute about paying officers overtime in the fire's aftermath.

But there might be another reason Spears is eager to downplay the incident. What you also never heard about was how woefully underprepared the corrections department was to handle this fire. One officer referred to the ensuing chaos in a memo as looking like "a scene from the ... Keystone Cops [sic]." Firefighting equipment was broken or not functioning; there weren't enough handcuffs to secure the prisoners while they were being moved; and there weren't enough exhaust fans to blow the smoke clear so firefighters could safely get in to fight the flames.

Also never previously reported was that this was the second time there's been a fire in MetroWest in the last nine months, and the second time corrections officers grappled with equipment problems.

If the department doesn't do an immediate overhaul of all its firefighting equipment and procedures, say several officers, the third time this happens somebody's likely to die. Then maybe you'll see it on the news.

Ofcr. Awilda Latif wrote an August 12 memo to MetroWest's facility supervisor, Capt. Gregory Bennett, advising him of problems encountered during the emergency. Officer Latif wrote that when the fire first broke out she could not hear the "Fire" announcement on the emergency radio channel due to the "unprofessional horseplaying on the radio" by other corrections officers goofing around. When Latif did run to the scene of the fire, "we were confronted with total chaos. Smoke was everywhere, multiple officers gearing up, inmates screaming, no extra SCBA [self-contained breathing apparatus] tanks available, no exhaust fans (incidentally, I made the announcement via radio, that we were in dire need of exhaust fans). And no electrical cords," Latif wrote in the memo. "For a few moments in the total confusion, our officers were all over the place dumbfounded of [sic] what to do with no direction." When the extra exhaust fans and extension cords were brought in, the circuit breakers kept blowing out. One officer's SCBA tank was apparently not filled to capacity, and ran out of air while the officer was in the middle of the fire. He suffered high levels of carbon monoxide poisoning and was one of the four kept in the hospital overnight.

One of the most serious equipment oversights was the lack of handcuffs to secure inmates as they were evacuated. "There weren't enough cuffs to get around. This should never have been an issue. Mandatory flex cuffs should have been in storage at SMU South to be readily available at our disposal for emergency evacuation," Latif wrote. The handcuffs would be needed for any evacuation -- fire, riot, earthquake.

For some corrections officers New Times talked with, the events described in the memo are eerily similar to nine months earlier, when a fire broke out on November 1, 2001, in MetroWest's wood shop after a dust extractor machine accidentally lit up. According to those with knowledge of the fire, the corrections officers who responded "couldn't locate a tank [for air] to put on, two or three weren't working." Again officers had to set up the exhaust fans without wearing a tank. "The extinguishers, some weren't working, some were low," says one source. "It had been so long since the last training [some officers] forgot how to put the equipment on!"

An April 16, 2002, memo from a fire safety inspector in the department's Professional Compliance Bureau found, among other things, that the tanks officers used ran out of air quickly. "This could have occurred due to any of the following reasons: the air bottles were nearly empty or were empty when they donned the SCBA units; some part of the SCBA unit failed; or proper operating procedures were not followed." All the equipment was later inspected and found to be working, which means they were likely left lying around half-empty. That, in turn, means they were not being periodically inspected.

No one, apparently, paid enough attention to the inspector's memo to check all the equipment in the jail, thus allowing the same thing to happen months later in the jail's most secure area.

Corrections has always been the poor stepchild of the county's public safety sector -- comprising the corrections, police, and fire departments -- always struggling for money and respect. It's not a high-profile job, like cop or firefighter, and so it always remains politically vulnerable and the director is under a lot of pressure to trim costs. But to ignore corrections and its needs can be catastrophic.

In fact the two fires occurred amid plans to change the department's Mandatory In-Service Training in order to cut costs. The state requires corrections officers to undergo at least one week of training every four years. Traditionally the department sent officers to an academy at Miami-Dade Community College's north campus, for refresher courses in firearms use, CPR, and firefighting, among other things. But several months ago, the department switched the training, so that now it will be conducted in-house using other guards as field training officers. The change saves money because the officers are not taken out of rotation for a week. But it has prompted several officers to complain the new plan is far inferior. "Somebody walks around and gives you a book while you're on shift. Then they test you on it," one officer says.

After initially dismissing the fire's significance, Director Spears said she needed to review the facts surrounding both incidents and get back to New Times. By press time she had not called.