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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Hotel Disasters Have Put Key Issue Under Fire : Safety: Statistics show that a majority of properties are ill-equipped to handle fires. Even worse, most guests have no idea what to do when a fire breaks out.

April 29, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

Over the past 10 years, there have been some notorious hotel fires: the 1980 blaze at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas that killed 85 people; the 1986 New Year's Eve fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which killed more than 97, and the recent fire at the Heliopolis Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Cairo, Egypt, that killed 17.

According to the National Fire Protection Assn., there were more than 8,000 hotel and motel fires in 1988, with more than $100 million in damages reported. (Hotel and motel fires in 1989 have yet to be determined.)

All of the fires have focused attention on one of the most serious travel questions: How safe is your hotel room from fire? How well-protected are you?

Some of the answers may not be comforting. Worse, perhaps, some of the answers might not be readily available.

This much, however, is known: According to the most recent studies of the NFPA, cigarette smokers account for roughly 21% of the hotel/motel fires. Fires of suspicious origin (arson) account for 19%.

Even so, 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 breaks out or, in the event of a fire, how to escape a burning hotel safely.

For example, think back to the last time you checked into a hotel room. Did the bellman point out the fire escapes or nearest exits? How about the smoke detector or sprinkler systems in your room? And if the escapes weren't pointed out, was there a map or sign in the room to give you that information?

A lot of the blame for fire safety can be blamed on outdated municipal and state fire codes. That, combined with a historic unwillingness on the part of many hotels (and hotel chains) to upgrade their fire-safety systems, has led to well-documented tragedies.

The MGM Grand Hotel fire was responsible for finally getting officials to strengthen fire-safety codes throughout Nevada. Now, sprinkler systems are required in all hotels--old and new.

But some cities such as Washington, D.C., don't require sprinkler systems in guest rooms. Only four states--Massachusetts, Nevada, Hawaii and Florida--have adopted laws that require all high-rise buildings to be equipped with sprinkler systems in the next few years.

In 1987, a bill was introduced in Congress that would have forced many hotels to install sprinklers in rooms. Many hotels, along with the American Hotel and Motel Assn., successfully lobbied against the legislation. A similar bill was introduced last year.

The AHMA began its own study of fire safety. According to a survey of 4,500 hotels (representing 762,000 guest rooms), nearly all hotels have smoke detectors, but only 45% have sprinklers; 67% of high-rise hotels had all guest rooms outfitted with sprinklers, a substantial and positive increase from earlier industry estimates.

At this writing, none of the proposed legislation on mandatory smoke-detection devices and sprinklers has become federal law. This despite the 385 non-firefighter deaths in U.S. hotel and motel fires from 1983 to '88.

However, some independent hotels and chains have not waited for stricter state or federal regulations, having instead moved to upgrade fire-safety systems in existing hotels.

When the United Nations Plaza Hotel in New York City began a renovation recently, particular attention was paid to fire safety: The fire-alarm system was upgraded, with the addition of interior alarm boxes, public address speakers, sprinklers, smoke and heat detectors and a special smoke-removal system.

In 1978, when Stouffer took over management from Sheraton of the Tower City Plaza Hotel in Cleveland, the hotel, built in 1918, was in bad shape. The building's 750 rooms had minimal fire safety.

"It was an antiquated system," Ed Chanapry, the hotel's general manager, said. "There were no smoke detectors or sprinklers in guest rooms. And because of when the hotel was built, it was 'grandfathered' in the codes. Officially, it didn't need them."

But in 1985, when Stouffer embarked on a $35-million renovation of the hotel (reducing the number of rooms to 500), the first item of business was fire safety. Detectors and sprinklers were added, and alarms were installed in all public areas.

The cost: more than $2.5 million. But the hotel then became Cleveland's only hotel fully developed with sprinklers. In addition, the hotel trains its staff in firefighting and fire-safety techniques and has created an "emergency response team."

The Sheraton Corp. started its new fire-safety program three years ago (almost immediately after the Puerto Rico hotel fire), and gave its hotel managers until June 30 of this year as a target date to meet exacting fire-safety requirements in its 461 hotels. (Ironically, the Heliopolis Sheraton in Cairo had not started its compliance when the fire occurred.)

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