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In Case of Fire


How To Protect Yourself When You're Staying At A Hotel

You are in a hotel on a business or vacation trip, asleep in your room. Suddenly, you smell something strange. You open your eyes and see clouds of smoke billowing outside your window. What do you do? Do you run out of your room screaming, "Fire!" or do you drop to the floor and crawl to the elevator?

In the wake of four recent major hotel fires in Illinois, Nevada, and New York that killed 137 people, more and more hotel pa trons are asking these and other questions. "It's evident people are more concerned," notes one hotel owner. "Thcv ask where the exits are and if we ha~ve sprinklers. They never did before."

Hotels are usually inspected for fire safety measures, but fire departments often do not have effective enforcement powers. In some states. the fire codes are simply not strong enough to protect rcsidcn ts. Many ci tics, such as New York, require that new buildings have sprinkler systems. But there are usually dangerous exceptions. The I IO-storv World Trade Center, for instance, i; voluntarily installing sprinklers-but it is exempted from the sprinkler rule because it is jointly owned by New York and New Jersey, which have different fire equipment requirements.

In the case of Las Vegas, Nevada, where eighty-four people died and over seven hundred were injured in a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel, the local building code had been changed to require sprinklers throughout any building over seventy-five feet tall. But the new ruling was not retroactive. The twenty-six-story MGM was not required to have sprinklers on any of the floors from the second to the twenty-fifth. There also were no smoke detectors; the stairwell doors could only be opened from the inside at the ground level; the manual alarm system was not connected to the fire depart men t (and never sounded); and the ventilating system did not have automatic fire dampers.

These were just some of the deficiencies that made the MGM fire a tragedy. But they are not unique, and hotel fires are not unusual. Captain Richard Kauffman of the Los Angeles County Fire Department reports in a pamphlet on hotel fire safety that the United States has an average of five thousand hotel fires a year.

Nonetheless, if more hotel guests followed a few simple safety procedures, more lives could be saved.

One elementary rule that was not followed at the MGM fire concerned the use of elevators. Many tried to escape in them. Yet fire and smoke spread up elevator shafts, and electrical power can be lost, trapping anyone inside an elevator. 

"One elevator we opened had two people dead in it," an MGM rescue worker told Firehouse Magazine. "The one across from it had three people dead in it. They were on the bottom floor-if they could have just forced the doors open. But they weren't thinking and didn't try ... Or they had inhaled so much smoke that they just didn't have the strength."


Rules To Memorize

First, find out how many fire exits there are on each floor. Two exits for each wing, in addition to the main exit, is a good sign. Look into the fire protection systems. The safest hotel will have sprinklers in all the rooms and hallways. Are there portable fire extinguishers in the hallways and smoke detectors in the rooms' (You can buy portable smoke detectors.) Check out the fire exit doors. Do they open and close easily? If there is a problem, report it to the manage-J ment ,

Then, find out on which side of the hallway your floor's exits are located, and count the number of doors from your room to the exits. If the smoke is thick during a fire, you must be able to find either exit-in case one is blocked-without being able to see.

Practice opening and closing the windows of your room. Know where your key is. Many people died in the MGM fire when they rushed out of their rooms at the first alarm, found the smoke-filled hallways unmanageable, but were unable to return to their rooms because they did not have their keys. Know the fire and police department phone numbers to call in an emergency. If you have a balcony, know whether it adjoins other balconies. If there is heavy fire in your room, you may ha ve to move from one balcony to another.


When A Fire Starts

If you are asleep and smell smoke, do not sit up. Smoke rises and if you roll out of bed to the ground, chances are you can avoid contact with it. Smoke is very disorienting, and just taking a whiffofit can cause panic. Instead, roll to the floor and orien t yourself. Is the smoke in your room? If it isn't, call the fire department; tell them what room you are in and that you smell smoke. Be specific. Do not say, "There'sa fire here." Firemen can waste time searching for a fire on your floor when it is actually a floor or two below.

If there is smoke in-your room, open a window. Do not break it; you may have to close it later. If smoke is outside the window, close the drapes and remove everything combustible from the window area.

Next, go to the door. If the handle is not hot, open the door a crack, keeping the palm of one hand pressed against the door, ready to slam it shut if fire or smoke are outside.


Close All Doors


If the hallway is free of smoke, crawl out, taking your key with you. Crawl along the side of the hallway on which the nearest exit is located, and count the doors until you reach the exit.

At the exit, stand up and walk down the stairs, grasping the railing as you go. Be sure tha t you close the stairwell door here. Fire and smoke can often spread from floor to floor through open doors. (As a general rule, if you are coming away from a heavy fire to a clear area, always close the door behind you. Depending on the material of which it is made, a closed door can stop a fire's spread for as much as forty-Iivc minutes.)

If there is already heavy smoke in the stairwell, or if you encounter it as you go down, turn around and go up to the roof. In most cases, this is the safest place, and firemen have a better chance of reaching you there with aerial ladders.

Remember, though, to prop open the exit door to the roof. This will vent the smoke. Smoke and heat rise and, if

they have no escape point, will spread horizontally on the floors below the roof (or else become thicker in the stairwell itself), Also, if the stairwell is vented, the fire stairs might become clear of smoke, so that firemen can use them for rescue efforts. Once you are on the roof, wait at the windward side (the side from which the wind is blowing) for firemen.


If You're Trapped In Your Room

What should you do if you cannot get out of your room because the door is too hot and the fire is right outside? Many people jump. Don't. Your chances of survival are better in the room.

First, fill the bathtub with water.

Stuff wet cloth in the cracks of the bathroom door to keep smoke out. Use your trash can to apply water from the tub to the door to keep it cool. Apply water to the walls, too, if they 'are hot. You might want to prop a mattress against the door. Keep it cool, though.

You can help filter smoke out by tying a wet towel around your nose and mouth, folded in a triangle. Remember: most fire deaths are not caused by flames but by smoke inhalation.


In A Hot Situation, The Safe Stay Cool

The most important rule is: Do not panic. "As long as you can breathe, you're in good shape," says Ed Sere, a fourteen-year-veteran New York City fireman. "Even the best people can lose control. Take a polyutherane mattress fire. The mattress gives off a lot of acrid smoke; a lot of people go out of their minds because it seems like the whole world's on fire:' But it's a ten-cent fire. Nothing is really burning.

"It usually doesn't matter what's burning: If you have an escape plan, your chances are better. You've got to be able to react without thinking, however, so you should keep your plan simple, keep it basic, and, above all, keep practicing it. You can learn a thousand things, but if you can't do them automatically, when that first whiff of smoke hits you, you'll forget everything." •