PHILADELPHIA -- For years, there was limited awareness of the danger of hotel fires. People died in them, but the deaths tended to be widely dispersed and so did not attract much attention.
It took a couple of disastrous fires in late 1980 -- one at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev. that killed 87 people and another in which 26 people died at the Stouffer Inn in Harrison, N.Y. -- to make travelers, hoteliers and government regulators concentrate on trying to make lodgings safer.
The hotel industry still has much work to do to offer a high degree of safety to all guests in all lodgings. But over the last decade, considerable progress has been made, according to fire-safety experts and industry officials.
The American Hotel and Motel Association (AHMA), for instance, estimates that 98 percent of the nation's 3 million hotel rooms now have smoke detectors in them, the result either of voluntary efforts or local regulations.
Also, about half the roughly 13,000 governmental jurisdictions (cities, counties and so on) nationwide now require placards on the back of every hotel room door detailing how to reach fire exits, said Ray Ellis, AHMA's director of risk management and operations.
Fire-suppression sprinklers installed in ceilings are considered one of the best methods of preventing the spread of flames and smoke, and they are becoming increasingly common, especially in newer hotels, Ellis and others said.
The federal Hotel and Motel Safety Act of 1990 is helping to increase the use of sprinklers because, after 1996, government employees will be prohibited from staying at non-sprinkler-equipped hotels with more than three floors. The law is forcing most large hotels to install sprinklers.
About 150,000 rooms in existing hotels need sprinklers installed in order to comply with the law, Ellis said.
More and more new hotels also are installing public-address systems that can be used to alert guests to evacuate a hotel because of a fire or other emergency. Ellis said he was recently rousted out of a Marriott hotel in St. Louis with just such a system, when a male voice boomed out at 11:30 p.m., from a speaker in his room, "May I have your attention please?" and requested an orderly evacuation of the hotel because a fire alarm had gone off.
"Needless to say, they got my attention," Ellis said.
The AHMA estimates that one-third of all U.S. hotel rooms, or about 1.1 million, have sprinklers in them, including almost half the rooms in hotels of 76 rooms or more.
Albert Sears, special assistant to the president of the National Fire Protection Association, said fire safety had been enhanced significantly in recent years because all major hotel companies had set standards for a property to be a part of the chain.
All Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton and Marriott hotels, for example, must have sprinklers in guest rooms and public areas, he said.
"There has never been a multiple-death fire where sprinklers were operating," Sears told a seminar for corporate travel managers at the recent National Business Travel Association convention in Chicago. "No one has ever drowned when they went off. They can be the most important tool you have so far as fire safety goes."
Sears warned the travel managers, too, that in addition to checking the safety of hotel rooms, they should carefully check the fire-safe ty features of any meeting rooms they use. In the Stouffer Inn fire in 1980, most of the victims died in a meeting-room wing that wasn't equipped with sprinklers, he said.
"Whenever you're holding a meeting, you should always start by pointing out the exits," Sears said. In addition, it is a good idea to check exit doors to make sure they're not blocked, chained shut or lead into the kitchen, a common place for fires to start, he said.
Sears stopped while addressing the corporate travel managers, pointed out the two exits in their Hyatt Regency Hotel meeting room, and added that he had checked the fire exits to make sure they led outside the building.
Fortunately for travelers, travel agents and travel managers, there is a growing body of information avail
able about hotel fire safety, from a wide variety of sources.
Two of the main guidebooks used by business travelers and vacationers, the Mobil Travel Guides and the American Automobile Association (AAA) Tour Books, include information about whether hotels have sprinklers. The AAA books also note whether the lodgings have smoke detectors in all rooms. The Mobil Guides formerly included that information, but now assume that all hotels are equipped with detectors.
All the guidebooks and brochures include basic advice on being prepared in case there is a fire, and how to stay alive if there actually is one.
"Never consider it an accident that an alarm went off," Mobil Guides editor-in-chief Alice Wisel said. "Find out what's going on."