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How to respond to correctional emergencies

When facing emergencies, correctional officers must be ready and trained to deliver a measured, systematic response

Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility.jpg

The fact that these emergencies occur in a correctional environment only complicates emergency response.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

Keeping correctional staff safe begins with how we prepare to respond to correctional emergencies. This preparation is usually dealt with under the umbrella of emergency preparedness planning.

It is important to note that correctional personnel respond to emergencies as first responders. Staff members initially respond to these emergencies, determine what type of specialized emergency response is needed, then assist with handling the problem while the appropriate specialized response teams are called to the scene, such as correctional emergency response teams, EMS, fire department or maintenance department.

Remember that you are a correctional officer/jail officer/juvenile correctional worker/correctional staff member first and a first responder second – the extent of your authority and responsibilities is limited by your job description. Although we all help out as needed in any emergency, how we respond is dictated by our respective functions and training within the institution – security, medical, mental health, support or administrative personnel will all assist, but their functions will be different.

Types of Correctional and Institutional Emergencies

There are four types of emergencies correctional personnel respond to on a regular basis:

  1. Disturbance emergencies: These range from the daily arguments between inmates and other inmates and/or staff, to fights, self harming behavior, from minor disturbance through a major riot.
  2. Medical emergencies: These range from a small cut on the finger, to major injuries from natural causes and/or fights, to major medical problems like a heart attack or suicide attempt.
  3. Fire emergencies: Fires are always a concern because of the danger of direct fire or the smoke generated by the fire along with the accompanying panic response
  4. Miscellaneous emergencies: This category is a catch-all for all other emergencies that occur in a correctional environment, and deals with such things as power outages, heating and AC system failures or plumbing emergencies that generate flooding.

When facing one or more of these emergencies, correctional staff must be ready and competently trained to deliver a measured, systematic response. Developing policy and procedure is not enough. Staff must physically train for emergency response procedures to ensure proper application to the type of emergency at hand.

The fact that these emergencies occur in a correctional environment only complicates emergency response. Think of the snowball effect a miscellaneous emergency like flooding could have: An inmate “falling” and injuring himself (medical emergency) might be an attempt to distract staff from a planned assault on another inmate (disturbance emergency). If you think about it, in a full-fledged riot, all four emergency types will be very likely be covered – disturbance, medical, fire and miscellaneous.

First Responder Philosophy

The first responder philosophy was created in the 1980s as a part of the State of Wisconsin Principles of Subject Control (POSC®) training program to outline the proper way for institutional personnel to respond to emergency situations.

This program was designed and utilized in state prisons, county jails, mental health/treatment facilities and other institutional facilities. Made up of 10 components, this emergency response model is uses to prepare, train, document, evaluate and defend institutional staff response to emergency situations.

Activity Response Cues checklist

1. Arrive on the scene. Become aware of the emergency.

2. Assess the situation. Determine type of emergency.

3. Alarm is given. Notify control center/get back up responding, if needed.

4. Evaluate the situation. Are there any hidden dangers?

5. Enter the emergency site. When you have enough back up and it’s appropriate to do so.

6. Stabilize subject/scene. Restrain subject, if appropriate

7. Initial medical assessment. Remember that you need to stabilize the subject(s) before proceeding to this step.

A. Determine the level of consciousness (yes/semi-conscious/no)

B. Check ABCs (Airway/Breathing/Circulation)

C. Perform a body check (severe bleeding/gross deformities)

D. Treatment to level of training (activate EMS if appropriate)

E. Continue to monitor the subject (stay close/watch closely)

8. Long-term monitoring. Does the subject have “special needs” that require additional care/supervision.

9. Communication. What do you have, what type of assistance is needed, who is responding, who is bringing in the emergency equipment, when you have enough assistance on the scene and when the emergency is over.

10. Documentation/debriefing. Detailed reports on what led up to the emergency, what occurred during the emergency and how the staff followed up after emergency, as well as the findings of the investigation that followed and remember: If the staff doesn’t discuss and evaluate their response they will keep making the same mistakes.


Correctional personnel respond to emergencies as first responders. The first responder philosophy says that staff should ARRIVE on the scene, ASSESS what type of emergency they have and call in an ALARM before jumping in.

The next step is to EVALATE whether there are any hidden dangers (is this a set up?) before deciding to ENTER the emergency site in order to STABILIZE both the subject and the scene.

Once the subject has been stabilized (which often includes the application of restraints), staff must begin INITIAL MEDICAL ASSESSMENT, which includes following the trained protocol.

Next comes LONG-TERM MONITORING that includes proper placement of the inmate after the incident, based on the inmate’s security, medical and/or mental health needs.

COMMUNICATION takes place through the emergency response, and includes communication with the inmate, staff, witnesses and other responding professionals.

Finally comes the DOCUMENTATION/DEBRIEFING that includes all levels of documentations required by staff involved in the emergency, along with a tactical debrief to provide lessons learned for staff members for the purpose of improving future performance.

This article, originally published May 2007, has been updated.

Experience, expertise and communication skills are the criteria by which a defensive tactics instructor is judged. By these measures, Gary T. Klugiewicz is recognized as one of the nation’s leading control systems analysts specializing in the Use of Force.