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Updates on Fire Safety in Hotels - The Responsibilities and Challenges

publication date: Mar 16, 2012
author/source: Thomas G. Daly, MSc., CSP



If you follow the issue of fire safety in hotels and motels, you might conclude today that the lodging industry’s historical problem with fires has largely been eradicated.  Your conclusion would be partially correct.
To that point, first let’s review the good news.
Hotel Fires

From the lodging industry’s worst years in the early ‘80s when more than 12,000 fires struck the approximately 2.1 million U.S. hotel rooms each year causing some 150 fire deaths and 750 fire-related injuries annually, in 2010 (latest figures available) there are less than 4,000 fires, 11 fire deaths and 150 fire injuries each year [1] in our nation’s hotels and motels.  And, not to be omitted from this analysis, the number of hotel rooms has grown to more than 4.7 million [2]. 
As such, looking at the rate of fires per 100,000 hotel rooms each year, the improvement is staggering and dwarfs any similar improvement in any other occupancy group over the same three decade period.

Codes and standards
Some code writing organizations, which shall remain nameless, are quick to claim credit for the reduced number of hotel fires citing the changes to their codes and standards affecting hotels which are adopted by local governments in their building and fire codes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  No smoke detector or fire sprinkler ever prevented a fire from starting in a hotel. 

Further, new or revised codes and standards rarely, if ever, are applied retroactively to existing hotels and other lodging establishments. For example, the International Fire Code, the predominant code adopted by states and localities to form their fire codes, specifically applies its ‘construction and design’ provisions, including fire safety requirements, to ‘Structures, facilities and conditions arising after the adoption of this code’. [3]
Hotel chain fire safety standards

The establishment of corporate fire safety policies by major lodging chains including Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton (now Starwood) in the ‘80s and their enforcement over the ensuing decade played a large role in reducing the outcome of fires that did occur in their properties. 

No hotel fire deaths have occurred in any of those chain’s properties once their fire safety policies were fully implemented in the early ‘90s.  These corporate fire safety policies, which largely mandated full sprinkler protection and fire alarm systems for all hotels along with smoke detectors in all guest rooms, were made applicable to all new and existing hotels, including franchised properties.  More than $1 billion was voluntarily spent on improved hotel fire safety by the industry to reduce the threat of fire to guests and employees.

Additionally, those policies often required enhanced fire resistant requirements for such items as mattresses and upholstered furniture purchased from those chains’ supply management resources.  Historically, those items were among the ‘item first ignited’ in hotel fires as reported in NFPA fire statistics.
Almost all hotels constructed after the late ‘80s were required by newly revised building codes to have automatic sprinkler systems in all areas along with fire alarm systems and smoke alarms in each guestroom.

The critical player – The Hotel Engineer
At the hotel level, the reduction in the number of fires is largely attributable to lodging industry engineers. The fire safety expertise in most lodging establishments rests in the engineering department and in its Chief Engineer or Director of Property Operations. 

They largely teach the rest of the staff the basics of fire inspection techniques, emergency evacuation procedures and, where designated and trained, how to operate basic fire extinguishing equipment such as fire extinguishers and fixed fire extinguishing systems as are found in hotel kitchens.  They also are responsible for testing and maintaining fire alarm systems, fire equipment and are often the liaison between the hotel and the local fire department.

Good fire safety policies and procedures married to correct training and diligent enforcement have made most, but not all, of the lodging industry the poster child for fire safety.
Notwithstanding these successes, the remaining fire problem is almost exclusively focused on older limited-service hotels and motels.  A bit of fire safety advice--don’t stay in such establishments—ever.  There are plenty of new limited service hotels in virtually every major lodging operator’s family of brands at all price points to satisfy your needs. Those properties will have all of the requisite fire safety features to limit your risks, if not eliminate them altogether.

The Fire Next Time
Now for the bad news.
The lodging fire safety threat which remains today can be laid at the feet of slumlord operators of mostly older limited service low-rise hotels.  Those hotels were largely built prior to code changes in the late ‘80s which mandated fire sprinkler systems in all newly constructed hotels, along with smoke detectors in guest rooms, fire alarm systems and related emergency procedures, training and strict maintenance of fire equipment and systems.  Those operators have not upgraded fire safety equipment and systems in their properties nor have adopted their own fire safety policies for their owned, managed or franchised hotels which would address this failing.
Lodging fires over the last two decades that have resulted in multiple loss of life occurred at these hotels:

1.     Fontana Hotel – Miami Beach, FL – three stories – 9 civilian fire deaths – 4/6/1990

2.     Paxton Hotel – Chicago, IL – four stories – 21 civilian fire deaths - 3/23/1993

3.     Howard Johnson Hotel - Bowling Green, KY – two stories – 4 civilian deaths - 1/6/1996

4.     Comfort Inn Hotel – Greenville, SC – three stories – 6 civilian deaths – 1/25/2004

5.     Mason Hotel – San Diego, CA – three stories – 2 civilian deaths – 12/17/2004

6.     Mitzpah Hotel – Reno, NV – three stories – 12 civilian deaths – 10/31/2006

7.     Zanzibar Motel – Reno, NV – two stories – 2 civilian deaths – 12/10/2007

8.     Days Inn Hotel – Hoover, AL – two stories – 4 civilian deaths - 1/16/2010
Clearly, the lack of corporate fire safety policies among some well known lodging system operators constitutes a clear and present danger to the travelling public.  Avoid those chains when making your travel arrangements.

So how does a traveler find out if a hotel has comprehensive fire protection equipment, systems and emergency procedures?  Good luck finding basic fire safety information, such as whether the hotel is equipped with fire sprinklers and smoke detectors, on chain websites.

The U.S. Fire Administration’s website implementing the ‘Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/hotel/ provides some information but not all hotels have bothered to register and few travelers know about this resource.  Your best bet is to call the hotel and ask to speak with the General Manager or Chief Engineer. Be specific, especially as it relates to sprinkler systems, as fire deaths in sprinklered hotels are unheard of. 
Hilton, Marriott and Starwood have set a high bar for fire safety.  Staying at one of their brands is a safe bet.
Thomas G. Daly, MSc., CSP is the former Vice President Loss Prevention for Hilton Hotels Corporation and past Chairman of the NFPA Lodging Industry Section. He was the lodging industry’s key witness at Congressional hearings considering the ‘Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990’ P.L. 101-391. He is currently a Managing Member of The Hospitality Security Consulting Group, LLC www.thehscg.com.

[1] Flynn, Jennifer D., ‘U.S. Hotel and Motel Structure Fires’, National Fire Protection Association, March 2010
[2] Lodging Industry Profile, The American Hotel & Lodging Association - 1980 and 2010
[3] International Code Council, ‘International Fire Code, 2010, Sec. 102.1

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