Las Vegas casino-hotel fire raises new concern over high-rise structures

The conflagration at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas has raised concern anew about the fire safety of high-rise hotels and office and apartment buildings. Investigators have found two primary causes for the high fatality total, 83 at this writing, in the MGM blaze: the alarm system failed to sound, and people on the upper floors opened their windows for fresh air and inadvertantly let in smoke.

The fire has touched off a new round of controversy about the stringency of fire safety codes and their enforcement. For the MGM Grand Hotel, which opened on Dec. 5, 1973, after being built at a cost of more than $100 million, did not come close to meeting safety code recommendations of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) -- the nation's toughest fire code. Authorities say this is typical of hundreds of hotels and other high rises nationally.

The MGM did not meet, nor was it required by law to meet, stricter safety laws adopted last year by Las Vegas. These require extensive placement of smoke dectors and sprinklers.

Only 24 states have adopted the nonprofit NFPA's code, and in those that have , budget restrictions at both the state and local levels have prevented widespread enforcement. Briefly, the NFPA "Life Safety Code" recommends an extensive network of sprinklers (the MGM) Grand had only a comparative few), protection of vertical stairwells from smoke, an adequate number and proper arrangement of fire exits, and regular fire drills.

The NFPA maintains that the adoption of this code or at least adherence to its principles would save the lives of thousands of people each year.

In the wake of the hotel fire, Las Vegas officials are stepping up safety procedures, especially in hotel-casino complexes where crowds of gamblers play nearly 24 hours a day.

New Jersey Attorney General John Degnan, a critic of the casino gambling trade, announced over the weekend that he will investigate the fire safety standards of the hotel-casino complexes in Atlantic City. Sometimes called "Las Vegas East."

Atlantic City fire officials maintain that the new gambling pleasures palaces have the best safety equipment available.

A fire safety technician at the Boardwalk hotel-casino complex owned by Resorts International Inc. told the Monitor: "We've got the most modern safety equipment possible." But he didn't know whether or not there were sprinklers in every room.

Elizabeth Smith, a spokeswoman for Las Vegas fire department, says that "the current fire safety code is excellent." But the hotels were built before the code went into affect, she said, and the code contained no "grandfather clause" which would have made it apply retroactively.

However, in the wake of the MGM Grand Hotel fire, public officials are sure to be under pressure to require all hotels to conform with the code.

Miss Smith called the attention to the community response in Las Vegas to the fire emergency."People throughout the entire area pitched in to help the victims. They donated clothing, blankets, food. hotels offered free rooms to those who had to flee.

"I'm proud of the way our city reacted," she said.

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