Two Hotel Infernos Leave An Expert Smoldering Over U.S. Apathy on Fire Safety
In the space of 12 days at Thanksgiving, 110 people died in fires at two American hotels—the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (84 fatalities, 738 injured) and Stouffer's Inn in Harrison, N.Y. (26 dead). Gordon Vickery has seen many such tragedies in his 34 years as a professional fire fighter, and he believes that most of them were avoidable. In nine years as chief of the Seattle Fire Department, Vickery built it into one of the most efficient and modern in the nation. After retiring in 1972, he ran the Seattle City Light Company until 1979, when President Carter named him head of the U.S. Fire Administration, a national training and research center in Washington. Vickery, 60, who hopes to continue in the job in the Reagan administration, and his wife, Frances, live in an Arlington, Va. apartment with a "No Smoking" sign on the front door. He discussed the two recent tragedies and the scope of the fire menace in the U.S. with Margie Bonnett of PEOPLE.
Could deaths have been prevented in the MGM Grand and Stouffer's Inn fires?
If the entire MGM Grand had had sprinklers instead of just the basement, first and top floors, you would have had a smaller fire that soon would have been extinguished. At the Stouffer's Inn, the hotel section was fully sprinklered, but the conference center—where the fire started—was not. There were some graphic examples in both tragedies where the flames stopped exactly at the point the sprinklers began. Sprinklers are the answer. The problem is getting owners to install them and other safety equipment in existing buildings.
Do they resist for economic reasons?
Largely. Installing sprinklers in new buildings costs about $1 to $1.50 a square foot. In an existing building, the cost can be double that. Then there is the lost income as parts of the building are shut down for the installation. On the other hand, there will be a return on the investment. Through savings on insurance premiums, a sprinkler system in one 300-room hotel in Seattle paid for itself in seven years. That's the big incentive right now, but local, state or federal laws should be passed providing tax credits as well. The biggest incentive in the world, though, is going to be public opinion demanding safe accommodations.
How else can buildings be made more fireproof?
Smoke detectors should be placed in individual rooms and public areas. It is now possible to pressurize stairwells to keep smoke out. New buildings should be designed with fire-retardant separations between rooms and floors. Basically, almost anything will burn, given the right circumstances. Nothing is really "fireproof." So the practical thing is to make separations using a material or type of construction that will resist burning for a length of time—usually an hour between rooms, an hour or two between floors, and up to four hours in walls around a furnace. The exact durations are up to each locality to determine in its fire code.
If a fire does start, what is the proper reaction?
You have to take precautions before there's a fire, or it'll be too late. When you check in, ask for a fire evacuation plan for the building—and if they don't have one, ask why not. Study the plan. Then familiarize yourself with the location of the fire exits, and on your own floor count or estimate the number of doors from your room to the nearest fire exit. That way, if the corridor is smoky, you can feel your way along the floor and find the exit.
A Las Vegas fire captain said that fewer lives would have been lost at the MGM Grand if people had stayed in their rooms. Is it prudent to venture out?
If you suspect there's a fire, or you hear an alarm—either at home or in a hotel—feel the door. If it's hot or even warm, don't open it. If it isn't, you can open it a crack and take a look to see what's happening. If you do decide to leave, always remember to take your key with you. With modern self-locking doors, many lives have been lost when people dash out, realize they cannot reach the exit and then can't get back in their rooms.
How can you prevent smoke from seeping into the room?
Fill the bathtub or sink with water. With this reservoir you can soak towels and stuff them under the door and between the cracks. If smoke does enter the room, wet a handkerchief or washcloth and breathe through it. Jumping is the last resort—only if you will be injured if you stay in your room a moment longer. Most people would hurt themselves jumping even from the second floor—from the third floor, quite severely. The general rule is don't jump.
Are fire codes strict enough?
Models of very stringent codes are readily available to every locality. The real problem is getting existing codes enacted and then enforced.
Wouldn't a strong federal code be the simplest solution?
Going back 200 years, America has chosen to regard fire as a local problem requiring a local solution. I'm in favor of the kind of support and advice we provide in the U.S. Fire Administration, but I would hate to see another massive bureaucracy created here to deal with this problem.
How widespread is local nonenforcement?
In many areas, the authority exists but the fire chief frequently does not have the courage to impose penalties, or the courts do not back him up. Although tragedies like the two recent hotel fires stir people up, the sad fact is that there is a great deal of apathy about fire in America.
Why are Americans seemingly indifferent to this danger?
We're probably the most heavily insured nation on earth, so people don't look at fire damage as a personal loss. It's something the insurance companies will pay for. We accept fire losses in a way European countries, for instance, don't. Though our fire departments are just as good at putting out fires, European departments spend much more time doing preventive inspections. Their fire codes are much more intrusive and more strictly enforced. Many European cities burned during World War II, and that has stuck in their minds.
How does our fire casualty rate compare with theirs?
Our fire death rate is four or five times higher than that of several countries in Western Europe. In fact, our rate, along with Canada's, is the highest of all the industrialized nations. Every year 8,000 Americans die in fires, and more than 200,000 are injured. Direct monetary loss is $5 billion.
Where do most fire deaths occur?
In homes, by far. However, there are 1,000 hotel and motel fires a month in the U.S., with an average annual toll of 160 lives and damages of $90 million.
What is the leading cause?
In hotels and motels, careless smoking, followed by arson, electrical equipment, heating equipment and cooking equipment. We are hoping for federal legislation on behalf of a self-extinguishing cigarette. A bed or sofa usually takes about 10 to 12 minutes to ignite, and such a cigarette would extinguish itself in four to five minutes.
What types of home heating problems cause fires?
In the Southeast, portable electric heaters are a big factor. People tend to be careless with them because they use them infrequently. In the Northeast, we're seeing an alarming climb in fires from wood-burning stoves. Most of these arise from improper installation and misuse rather than from inherent defects.
What region has the fewest fires?
Despite the MGM Grand fire, the Southwest is statistically safest. You have newer buildings there and fewer heating problems. Between 1974 and 1977 Honolulu had the lowest per capita fire death rate of all American cities. In the continental U.S., it was El Paso. The highest death rates were in Eastern cities, with Newark, N.J. topping the list.
Are sprinklers practical for home use?
We've just had a breakthrough in technology that is going to make them affordable. For a new three-bedroom house in an urban area, a system might cost about one percent of the purchase price. We also recommend every homeowner work out an exit drill plan for the family.
Are fire departments willing to work harder on prevention?
I hear the constant alibi that they'll have to create a whole special inspection force and add it to the department. I don't buy that. There isn't a department in this country that can't dedicate more manpower to inspections and preventive work. What the American people demand, they'll get.