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HOTEL FIRE SAFETY

This page is a resource for the traveling public and meeting planners who have questions about hotel and motel fire safety. This type of information is not routinely available, and what is available may not be that reliable. To help you inquire about the fire safety features of a hotel or motel, the following information will show you what to look for and the right questions to ask.
Hotels don't highlight fire safety like they do dining facilities and similar features. Apparently, this is out of concern that references to fire safety will accentuate the negative - the possibility of a fire. But fire safety is a bona fide concern. For one thing, individual travelers have concerns about their fire safety. For another, people who arrange travel and meetings for employees or organizations may take on a liability if they neglect to confirm the level of fire safety equipment. This page attempts to address those needs.
An overview of hotel fire safety.

The amount and type of fire safety equipment in a hotel varies by the size of the building, its height and age. Many high-rise hotels are protected with fire sprinklers, but one out of four still lack them. For all hotels and motels regardless of height, only 50 percent have fire sprinklers. Some hotel owners have corporate policies to retrofit older properties with fire sprinklers, but this is not the norm. And some hotels install state-of-the-art, well-maintained fire alarm systems that render false alarm problems nil, but other owners continue to tolerate the problem. As a result, many hotel guests ignore fire alarms.

The quality of fire protection also varies by region. In some areas, building and fire officials keep their safety codes current and diligently enforce them. But code advancement and enforcement are not uniform around the U. S. If these codes are not kept up to date and enforced by competent personnel, the quality of fire safety can suffer a great deal.

We are a giving a Hotel Fire Safety Act of 1990.

Fire Alarm System Required For Hotels/Motels.

New hotels are more likely to have what we consider high-quality fire protection, that is, fire sprinklers in every guest room as well as detection and alarm systems. Older hotels may only have smoke alarms in guest rooms, if they have that.

Some fire safety equipment is obvious, even to people who are not trained in fire safety. Examples are fire sprinklers and smoke alarms. Other items may not be obvious because laymen do not associate them with fire safety. An example is passive protection like a solid-bonded 3-hinged corridor door with UL-listed hardware. Its role in fire safety is discussed below in the section on egress systems.

The components of a hotel fire safety system include the following items:

Each of these items is described in a section below. You can get to a specific item by clicking on the hyperlinks at the top of the page, or you can scroll through the entire page. The description includes a discussion of each item's role and lists the questions that one should ask when inquiring about that item's presence and readiness.

All of the items discussed here are designed to work as part of an overall fire protection "system." This is important to remember because if one part of the system fails it increases the likelihood of other failures. Something as simple as a propped open stairway door can cause failure of the stairway pressurization, smoke control and emergency egress systems. Therefore, the hotel staff must be diligent in maintaining every fire protection device, and nothing can be overlooked because of the erroneous assumption that another safety device will compensate for it. But experience tells us that problems like this occur, and that is why we consider fire sprinklers as fundamental to hotel fire safety. They stop fires when they are small and reduce the dependence upon the other fire safety features.


What we don't cover here.

This page does not contain guest instructions for response to fires. As a rule, hotels routinely provide this information, either in the security section of the hotel information left in each guest room or posted on guestroom doors. Our purpose is to inform you about the items that will keep a fire from becoming a threat in the first place. If they are effective, the need for emergency evacuation is unlikely


TIM.

No, Tim isn't a code word that will get you a special deal on a room. It is an acronym for three important items: Testing, Inspection and Maintenance. Fire safety equipment that is present may be of no use if it is not regularly tested, inspected and maintained by qualified technicians. There are nationally recognized standards that dictate how often TIM should occur for sprinklers and other fire safety equipment. Hotels with high-quality fire protection will have records of TIM.

Fire investigations abound with reports of equipment that did not operate or was improperly adjusted, and that is why we refer to TIM throughout. Travelers may be fortunate enough to stay in a brand new hotel from time to time, but this is the exception to the rule. We are more likely to stay in buildings that are several generations old, with fire safety equipment that is as old as the building. The importance of TIM cannot be understated, and any hotel that does not adequately document TIM is neglecting its fire safety responsibilities.


What is a fire-safe hotel?

Fire safety is a relative term. If you define "fire-safe" as a zero chance of a fire, then one can never say that any hotel is fire-safe. However, we can describe hotels as relatively safer than others based on the fire protection equipment that is installed and the safety practices that they follow.


Fire sprinklers

Fire sprinklers are fundamental to hotel fire safety.You must stay on a fully sprinklered hotel for your safety

We have a basic criterion for hotel fire safety - a fire sprinkler system with sprinklers in every room, installed in compliance with nationally recognized standards and then maintained by qualified technicians. Sprinklers are designed to stop a fire when it is small, and they have a superior track record in saving lives and property. In the U. S., the frequency of hotel fires is relatively low. But even though it is a low-probability event, it is a high-consequence event. Fires in residential settings can grow with amazing speed. In fact, most people drastically underestimate how quickly they can become deadly.

How fast can they grow? Fire tests confirm that a small fire in an average-sized room can ignite everything in the room in less than five minutes. The combustion products from that fire will start killing people in as little as two minutes. The fire investigation report for the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire that occurred in 1986 noted that 97 people died in a mere 12 minutes.

Another factor that increases the consequences of hotel fires is that hotels contain large numbers of people who are unfamiliar with the building and may be sleeping when a fire occurs. The history of hotel fires bears out the consequences of these factors.

You might be wondering how fast residential-type sprinklers work. In the same tests noted above, the sprinklers operated in just under one minute and stopped the fire long before the combustion products could reach lethal levels. Happily, hotels with fire sprinklers installed throughout are now routinely available, so we feel that sprinklers are a reasonable expectation. Many hotel and motel chains in the U. S. install them in all of their new buildings, and some have corporate policies to install them in all of their existing properties as well.

The value of fire sprinklers.

If a fire can be stopped before it grows, it cannot develop a lot of smoke, which is the biggest killer in fires. Smoke alarms are great and we look for them as well as sprinklers. But smoke alarms can only alert people to a fire, and fires can grow so quickly that they can kill before people can escape. A sprinkler will not only alert people to the fire (when a sprinkler opens, the water flowing through the system triggers an alarm), but it also opens very quickly and stops the fire. A fire that is quickly stopped cannot produce smoke and the carbon monoxide it carries.

Fire sprinklers are designed to operate when a fire is small and stop it before it grows to a stage known as flashover. At the flashover stage, the fire travels from the room of origin with a large burst of energy, pushing great amounts of heat and smoke to the rest of the building. Sprinklers are spaced so that they can stop a fire with a relatively small amount of water. In nearly all cases only one sprinkler opens. If you thought that all of the sprinklers in the room or building go off at the same time, you have been victimized by Hollywood gag writers looking for comic effect.Travelers need to be aware that some hotels have installed sprinklers in "common areas," such as corridors, restaurants, lobbies, etc., but not in the guest rooms. If a hotel does not have sprinklers in every room then it does not meet our criteria for hotel fire safety.

The reason for this is simple. If sprinklers are not installed in every room, a fire can grow to deadly proportions before the sprinklers outside the room stop its progress. A sprinkler located outside a burning room cannot stop the smoke that is being produced in the room, and this is a bigger threat to people than the flames.


Smoke detection and alarms.

A system of interconnected smoke detectors should be installed, with units in every room including common areas and all non-guest rooms. If they are installed in compliance with nationally recognized standards, the alarm system will alert guests who are at risk. It is also important that the alarm system be monitored off-site by a qualified organization. An example is a Central Station Alarm company that has an Underwriters Laboratories certificate. Some alarm systems are connected directly to the fire department, which is even better.

When inquiring about the company that monitors the fire alarm system, ask for documentation that the company has standing orders to call the fire department without delay. There are instances where hotels have advised the alarm company to call the hotel so an employee can check for an actual fire before notifying the fire department. This is unacceptable and can lead to tragedy. Do not accept verbal statements about the specific policy between the hotel and alarm company. Any quality fire alarm company will have this in writing, so the documentation should be readily available.

In large hotels, the building codes now require a Fire Department Control Station. This is a protected area where the fire alarm panel is located. The fire officer in charge will use it to monitor all of the building controls and can manually operate some equipment, such as smoke control devices. The control station also has a communication system so the officer can send voice instructions throughout the hotel. Hotels may not have this item as part of the alarm system if they were built prior to the requirements being placed in the building code.

Equally important is documentation on TIM. Modern fire alarm systems can be very complex, especially in high-rise buildings. They need regular attention by qualified technicians.


Duct Smoke Detectors

All air handling duct system must be equipped with duct type some alarms

Connection between Air handling units and alarm systems
All the air handling units must be programmed due to fire alarm.They must be stopped whenever a fire alarm actuates.All the duct systems must include fire stopping dampers.
Standpipes.

When you enter a hotel stairway and see a large pipe with a hose connection on it at each floor, you are looking at a fire department standpipe. They are installed in hotels, at least those higher than three stories, so that the firefighters can hook up their hose near the fire. This reduces the amount of hose that they need to carry up the stairs, which reduces the time it takes to set up and attack the fire.

TIM for standpipes is very important for two reasons. First, some of them are "dry," that is, there is no water in them. To get water to higher floors, the fire department hooks up its hoses to the standpipe connection on the outside of the building and pumps water into it. Dry standpipes can be clogged by debris placed there by vandals, so regular testing, inspection and maintenance is the only way to make sure that they will work as designed in a fire. "Wet" standpipes, those that have water present, are less prone to vandalism because the miscreant would get doused with water and set off an alarm.

The second reason primarily applies to to high-rise hotels. Standpipes in these buildings are connected to a fire pump that will start if water flow is detected in the standpipe or sprinkler system. The pumps must be powerful enough to supply adequate pressure at the highest floor, but this means that the pressure on the lower floors may be higher than firefighters can safely handle. To get an idea of the pressure, think about how your garden hose creates a pressure that pushes you backwards, then multiple that pressure by magnitudes.

When the pressure at an outlet is too high for safe use, a pressure-limiting valve will be installed at the outlet. These devices need to be regularly checked to make sure they are set at the correct pressure. If the setting is too high or too low for an effective fire stream, then the firefighters can be seriously delayed in attacking the fire.


Emergency lighting.

A fire may cause the building's electrical system to fail. Sometimes the fire originates in the electrical system. For this reason, the building should have emergency lights installed in all corridors and public rooms. Emergency lighting that complies with nationally recognized standards will be connected to a separate power supply that is backed up by an emergency generator. The lights will automatically go on when the system detects an electrical failure. Check for TIM.


Emergency egress system.

Every building should be built in compliance with a nationally recognized building code. These codes contain minimum standards for the emergency egress system, i. e., the pathways that provide evacuation routes from every part of the building to the outdoors at ground level. The building codes are based on the principle that the corridors and stairways are a vital part of the egress system, so they are required to have added protection that will theoretically last long enough to allow everyone to evacuate.

Have you ever noticed the metal labels on the edge of corridor doors and the doorways? They are there to document that the items comply with the additional protection requirements for egress paths. That is also why stairways are so spartan, with no decoration or carpeting. Because stairways are such a critical part of the egress path, they have stringent requirements that do not allow any combustible material at all - thus the lack of carpeting or even linoleum. And storage of anything, be it combustible or not, is forbidden in stairways. If you see these rules violated, it means that the hotel is not vigilant or is neglecting its fire safety responsibilities.

Along with the doors, the walls and ceilings of the egress paths are part of the added protection. These items combine to be the "compartmentation," the passive system of barriers that slows down the progress of a fire and smoke. That is why all doors should have self-closers, even the guest room doors.

Door wedges are a no-no. Doors that are propped open or ones that do not shut automatically and latch tightly are signs that the hotel is neglecting its fire safety responsibility. In large hotels, you may find doors across the corridor that divide the building into smaller fire compartments. These doors can be held open by approved devices. The devices are usually magnets that automatically release if the fire alarm panel activates.

We mention walls and ceilings because holes in walls or missing ceiling tiles defeat the required compartmentation. Any coverings on walls and ceilings should be limited to materials that will not contribute to the rapid spread of flames or development of a lot of smoke. When inspecting a hotel, visit all of the service areas as well. It is easier for the staff to neglect a hole or missing tile in areas were guests don't go. These are basic items, and their importance to the fire safety system is often overlooked (or worse, not understood). They should have records of TIM.


Exits &Exit signs.

Exit signs that comply with nationally recognized standards will be visible from any place in the corridor. Those that are not near an exit door will have an arrow showing the direction to the nearest exit. Again, TIM is important. It is very easy for exit lights to burn out over time, and just as easy to neglect replacing them. If the signs are being tested, inspected and maintained by qualified technicians, you have better assurance that they are accurate. A hotel employee may be tempted to replace a broken sign with one that has no direction arrow - or just as bad, with an arrow going the wrong way. They might make this mistake because they don't know what the installation standard requires. That is why we repeat the reminder that only qualified technicians should work on any fire safety system

Meeting Rooms
A general rule to keep in mind is that street-level meeting rooms are the easiest to evacuate. Rooms above the seventh floor are more hazardous because fire ladders may not reach that high. Hotel basement meeting rooms may not be a wise choice, because meeting participants must climb up stairs in the same direction smoke and flames will travel.

The meeting room should have adequate exits. A rule of thumb is that 50 to 300 persons require two exits. Three hundred to 1,000 need three exits and more than 1,000 persons should have four or more exits. The exits should be brightly lit, not blocked,by furniture or curtains and be easily opened. They should never be locked or chained. Seating or exhibit arrangements should allow enough aisle space for quick evacuation. You should familiarize yourself with exits and escape routes. Not only
make sure that the hotel floor plan is visibly posted, but also walk the entire escape route. Hallways, exits and stairwells should be clear of obstructions. Stairs should have emergency lighting; elevators should be clearly marked to prevent use in a fire.


Stairway pressurization.

Hi-rise hotels should have pressurized stairways. An exception is a hotel where the stairways are open to the outside. In pressurized stairways, a fan operates when the fire alarm panel receives a signal from a fire detector or sprinkler. The air is blown in from the exterior, and this creates a positive pressure in the stairway, keeping smoke from creeping into the stairway and blocking the egress path. Ask about TIM. It is easy for these systems to go out of balance over time.


Smoke control systems.

Very large buildings will have systems that automatically pressurize certain areas and depressurize others to contain smoke or exhaust it outside. This should definitely be present in buildings with atriums (where the rooms surround an open courtyard). Remember TIM.


Portable fire extinguishers.

Portable extinguishers are designed to control or extinguish small fires. They are placed throughout a hotel to be readily available when someone finds a fire. Installers follow a nationally recognized standard that dictates what type (based on the type of fire expected at that location), their location, and size. Different locations will require different types, depending upon the type of fire expected. For example, the corridors will have units for extinguishing paper and other similar combustibles. A kitchen area will have units designed to put out grease fires.

Notice that the extinguishers are placed in wall cabinets or are hung on the wall at a height that makes it easy for an average-sized person to remove. If they are found on the floor, then they are not in the proper location. One reason for hanging them is to prevent items from being placed on top of them.

It is easy to use portable extinguishers. The instructions use icons to make them clear to someone who has not used one before. However, hotel employees should receive periodic hands-on training on how to use them. Extinguishers are more effective in the hands of experienced users, and periodic training increases expertise. But there is another reason why employees should be trained. The experience also teaches employees the limits of the extinguisher. Knowing when to use it and when to call the fire department without delay is a valuable lesson that all hotels should be teaching to every employee.

Have you ever noticed the paper tags hanging on each extinguisher? They indicate when the unit had its last TIM. The hotel should have a record of the periodic visits by an extinguisher technician, while the individual tags document when the last TIM was conducted. If it was over a year ago, then the hotel is not keeping up on its TIM responsibilities.


Fire response plan.

A hotel with quality fire safety will have a written plan that describes every employee's responsibility in a fire or other emergency. The lack of a written plan or a refusal to show it are a cause for concern. Also be concerned if the instructions call for delaying the notification of guests or the fire department. Examples are orders to notify the manager before taking action, or orders to first investigate a fire alarm before calling the fire department or notifying guests.

Premature notification of guests due to false or nuisance alarms always concerns hotel management because they don't want to inconvenience guests. There are two things to consider here. First, if the hotel has replaced outmoded technology, and the fire alarm system was installed in compliance with nationally recognized standards (and TIM'd), false or nuisance alarms are rare. Modern smoke detectors are smart enough to quietly notify the monitoring company if they need servicing or are becoming too sensitive. That is why we stress the importance of TIM. There is no valid reason for a hotel to tolerate false or nuisance alarms.

Second, modern alarm systems have voice notification features that allow hotel employees to alert only those guests who are in immediate danger. For example, if a smoke detector on the 15th floor operates, the employee might be instructed to:

Notify the guests on the 14th, 15th and 16th floors to evacuate.
Alert guests on higher floors to prepare for an order to evacuate.
The specific evacuation message will vary by the type, size and layout of the building


Staff training.

Every employee should receive periodic formal training and practice on what to do in a fire emergency. A hotel with quality fire protection will have copies of their training plans and records of who attended each session. A verbal statement that "we give everyone regular training" should be suspect. The items covered in the plans should include such things as:

Each employee's responsibilities in a fire emergency.
Details about the building's fire equipment.
What the various fire alarm signals mean.
Who is responsible for notifying the fire department (this should always be done as a backup measure, even when the system is monitored).
The records should document the orientation and continued training of every employee, including hands-on instruction on how to operate portable extinguishers


Place for a Helicopter to Land

Although there are building codes in some states, requiring new high-rise buildings to include a heli-pad, many of the older skyscrapers have a "forest" of antennas and other equipment on the roof.

In conclusion.

If you have read all of the above and concluded that a hotel's fire safety system is a complex set of critical items that are all interrelated, then we did an effective job. You will also appreciate the importance of testing, inspection and maintenance by qualified technicians, because the failure of one part of the system can effect the ability of the other parts to work effectively. As we said earlier, when a fire occurs it is too late to find the problems.

This brings us back to the very first item we talked about - fire sprinklers. We already mentioned their excellent track record for saving lives and property. In addition, studies show that they are the most reliable part of a building's fire safety system. This makes them extra insurance against the failure of another part of a hotel's fire safety system. It is for these reasons that we make sprinklers the fundamental criterion for a quality hotel fire safety system.


 
 
 
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