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Many Hotels Not Equipped to Retard Fire Spread

January 18, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

The statistics are not particularly encouraging. According to the National Fire Protection Assn., there were more than 10,500 hotel/motel fires last year. And more than $100 million in damage was reported.

But the recent New Year's Eve fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel that killed more than 96 people in San Juan, Puerto Rico, once again served to focus attention on one of the most serious travel questions: How safe is your hotel room from fire? How well protected are you?

The answers, it seems, are not always comforting, nor are they always readily available.

This much, however, is known:

According to the most recent studies provided by the NFPA, cigarette smokers account for roughly 30% of hotel/motel fires; fires of suspicious origin (arson) account for 25%.

Not Properly Equipped

A majority of hotels are not properly equipped to report or retard fires effectively, and most hotel guests have no idea how to give themselves a fighting chance before a fire might break out, or in the event of a fire how to safely escape a burning hotel.

Much of the blame can be assessed against outdated city and state fire codes. This fact, combined with a historic unwillingness on the part of many hotels (and chains) to upgrade their fire safety systems has led to a number of well-documented tragedies.

Not surprisingly, the worst record for fire prevention and fire safety methods is held by resort and convention areas such as San Juan and Honolulu, especially where high-rise buildings are involved. The fire codes in Las Vegas have long been detailed in the wake of the tragic MGM Grand hotel fire in 1980 that killed 85 people.

Since then, as a direct result of that tragedy, the Nevada fire codes have been strengthened, requiring sprinkler systems in the construction of all new high-rise buildings. But few cities and states have required the sprinkler systems in all buildings (whether new or old).

Some cities, like Washington, D.C., don't require sprinkler systems at all. And only one state, Massachusetts, has adopted a law that requires all high-rise buildings be equipped with sprinkler systems within the next 10 years.

Too Expensive, Some Say

Owners of many hotels argue that to install sprinkler systems in older hotels is too expensive. In Honolulu, for example, an overwhelming number of hotels were built without sprinkler systems, smoke or heat detectors.

Until 1975 the 50th state had one of the most pathetic fire codes in the United States. Even now, the Hawaiian fire codes, which require sprinklers and smoke alarms in new construction, don't call for hotels to retrofit these systems into their buildings.

As a result, only two hotels in Waikiki come even close to adequate fire safety. One is the Kahala Hilton, which voluntarily chose to equip its building with the devices. The other is the Tapa Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village, a building that was constructed after 1975.

Many hotel owners continue to fight against new fire codes, despite the fact that NFPA statistics show that only two fatalities have ever occurred from fires in buildings that were fully equipped with sprinkler systems.

"We don't have the fire equipment to go above the eighth floor," says one Honolulu firefighter, "and new laws contemplating the retrofitting of older hotels seem to always get hung up on language."

Danger in Delays

At some hotel fires, fatalities occur because hotel management often delays notifying the fire department. Strange as this may seem, some hotels are more concerned with the inconvenience factor for their guests than they are in prompt response to alarms. They don't call the fire department until a fire is confirmed. In doing so, precious minutes are often lost.

"We would rather the people see us in the lobby than for there to be any delay in notifying us," says one Chicago Fire Department lieutenant.

Little by little, that indifferent attitude on behalf of some hotels toward fires is changing. "We now prefer to inconvenience guests, even if it's a false alarm," says a spokesman for the Ilikai Hotel in Honolulu.

And when a guest checks in at the Plaza Hotel in New York the bellhop gives a brief fire safety lecture, pointing out the emergency exits.

System Tested Daily

At the Seattle Sheraton Hotel the noisy fire alarm system (no alarm system is good unless you can hear it) is tested every day, with a special emphasis on the detection of smoke.

When the MGM Grand was rebuilt in Las Vegas, a new $5-million, computer-controlled fire safety system focused on the detection and removal of smoke. (Investigations following the 1980 fire showed that more than 60 of the 85 victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke that swept quickly through the building.)

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