After 9/11, after the Times Square bomber, and after the jumper who ended it all by leaping from the swimming pool atop the Parker Meridian Hotel, it may not be a surprise that travelers heading to New York are considering the “fear factor” along with the cost of hotel rooms, dining, attractions, and transportation. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown – what will happen to me? Will I get lost on a NY subway, spend too much money at Saks, shop at the next stall as a car bomb explodes, or be tempted into buying a NY coop?
Not in NYC
One dread that need not be a burden NY hotel guests is the fear of hotel fires.
According to the National Fire Data Center, part of FEMA’s US Fire Administration (USFA), an estimated 3,900 hotel and motel fires are reported to US fire departments each year, causing on average 15 deaths, 150 injuries, and US$76 million in property losses.
According to Jim Bullock, the president of NY Fire Institute and a retired deputy chief from the NY Fire Department, the good news is that NY hotel rooms and public spaces are sprinklered and the stuff that comes out of the sprinklers is good, old-fashioned, non-toxic water. (There are chemicals in the materials released in a kitchen fire, but it is unlikely that most visitors will spend any significant amount of time in this part of the property.) John Clemens, a Fire Protection Design Consultant said that, “Sprinkler systems are checked yearly and fire extinguishers are checked quarterly.”
A Cautionary Tale
In the “old days” when a hotel was queried “is your hotel sprinklered?” the frequent response was, “Yes, they just turned it on for the front lawn.” Over the last 20-30 years, hotel fire safety has improved, and most properties have adopted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code. According to Hallie Ephron Touger of the NFPA, today it is safer to stay at a hotel than to stay at home.
The leading cause of hotel fires are: cooking (45.8 percent), electrical malfunction (7.3 percent), heating (7.2 percent), intentional (5.6 percent), and open flame (5.6 percent). Fortunately, very few (9 percent) fires spread beyond the point of origin. (Sources: NFIRS 5.0, NFIRS 5.0)
Who Is In Charge?
Depending on the hotel, the responsibility for fire safety may be the responsibility of the director, or loss prevention, or the head of the engineering department. In large hotels, and in “the best of all possible worlds,” Bullock would have the fire safety director as a dedicated position with 24/7 coverage. “Every hotel is required to have a fire safety director who completes a 20-hour course, passes a paper/pencil test, and successfully completes an on-site test. In addition, NFPA codes and standards influence US hotel chains with properties in the US and abroad. The guidelines cover construction, the selection of furniture and wall coverings, kitchen cleanup, and chemical storage procedures. The major hotel groups have their own corporate rulebooks, but they are developed from NFPA codes.”
According to John Clemens, a fire protection design consultant, when a sprinkler responds to a hotels’ heat source, an alarm sounds. In some properties, there is an alarm for each floor and (in some cases) the floor immediately above and below the floor with the fire. In some lodgings, the alarm sounds immediately in the command center. Depending on the property (and location) the alarm is transmitted to a private alarm monitoring firm (i.e., ADT) and then to the local fire department (or directly to the local fire department) who contacts the hotel to determine the next stage, which is usually an immediate deployment of personnel and equipment to the property.
Gregory Harrington, principal fire protection engineer with NFPA, indicated that during hotel construction and after completion, contractors, architects, and interior designers work closely with the fire department to assure the purchase of flame retardant fabrics, window and wall treatments, as well as furniture and fixtures. Before the hotel can receive a Certificate of Occupancy there is a review of the entire structure and contents by fire department representatives.
Hotel fires are major tragedies. The MGM Grand made the headlines on November 21, 1980 when a fire killed 85 occupants and injured almost 700; three months later (February 10, 1981), 8 people died and 198 were injured in an evening fire at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. On December 31, 1986, an afternoon fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel and Casino in San Juan Puerto Rico resulted in 97 fatalities and over 140 injuries. Research into the causes and consequences of all three fires revealed that there would have been fewer deaths if smoke alarms and a sprinkler system had been in place.
In 1990, the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act was passed, which mandates that traveling federal employees must stay in hotels and motels that comply with NFPA rules for smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. Business travelers can play it safe by searching the Hotel-Motel Master list on FEMA’s US Fire Administration website ( www.usfa.fema.gov/hotel ) to see if a hotel meets NFPA standards.
Although we see it on television programs (the Fire Commander props his computer on the hood of his car and reviews the blueprints for the building enroute to the fire), at this time, hotel building plans are not required to be on file with the fire department. Would it not be more efficient and effective to use the driving time from the fire station to the hotel for the commander to pull up the building plans on a computer, review the crises on the telephone with the hotel fire safety engineer, and have a viable strategy in-place prior to arriving at the scene? Every moment is critical – and current systems encourage down-time and inefficiencies rather than using technology to save physical and fiscal assets. All new hotels should include all of the newest technologies, fabrics, and fixtures that are likely to prevent fires, for it is easier to build-it-in than it is to “add it on.”
10 Fire Safety Questions for the Road Warrior
Global travelers have so much to think about that fire safety may not reach the top of the “things to see/do list.” It is especially important to ask questions about fire protection at older facilities that are not part of a major chain, because the move to install detectors and sprinklers has not been as strong in some of these properties.
Check List: Road Warriors Pay Attention
1. Select a hotel that is protected by both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system.
2. When checking in – ask the front desk what the fire alarm sounds like.
3. Is fire information offered in your language? If not – ask for a translation to be sent to your room.
4. If sight impaired, how is fire safety information made available?
5. If you are hearing or sight impaired, ask what signals are used to alert guests about fires and other emergencies.
6. When entering a room, review the escape plan posted on the door.
7. Take the time to spot the exits, counting the number of doors between your room and the exit.
8. Make sure the exits are unlocked; if they are locked or obstructed, report the situation to the security department immediately.
9. Keep your room card by your bed; take it with you if there is a fire.
10. If the alarm sounds, leave immediately! Close the door behind you. Use the stairs – never use the elevators during a fire.
11. If you must escape through smoke, get low and go under the smoke to the exit.
If you cannot escape:
a. Shut off the fans and air conditioners.
b. Stuff wet towels in the door crack.
c. Call the fire department and let them know your location.
d. Wait at the window for assistance.
Checklist: Meeting Planners Take Heed
Prior to booking a corporate meeting, a review of the hotel’s fire safety procedures should be conducted:
1. Is there a fire alarm to alert attendees of a fire (meeting rooms/conference centers/rooms/suites)? What does it sound like? What systems are used for hearing/sight-impaired participants?
2. Is there emergency lighting for exit ways and stairs?
3. Do exit doors from meeting, food service, or casino areas swing out?
4. Are exit doors properly marked?
5. Can guest rooms be accessed from the exit stairs?
6. Are instructions prominently displayed in each attendee’s room (in their native language) giving details of the fire alarm signal and indicating exit locations?
7. Are attendees’ room doors self-closing and free of transoms or louvers that might permit penetration of smoke into the room?
8. Is the facility fully sprinklered? If no, indicate where the sprinklers are located:
a. Meeting rooms
c. Public lobbies
d. Guest rooms
e. Public lavatories
9. Are smoke detectors located in all areas of the facility? If no, indicate smoke detector locations:
a. Meeting rooms
c. Public lobbies
d. Guest rooms
10. Are smoke detectors hard-wired into a central signaling system or directly to the fire department? If no, which are not?
Fire safety is a non-negotiable item. If the hotel/destination does not have adequate sprinklers and smoke alarms, and the local fire department does not have current, state-of-the-art fire-fighting equipment, the wisest decision is to move to another hotel or location.