Why hotel's modern fire system failed

The $500,000 fire in this city's five-month-old Westin Hotel the day after New Year's has had alarm bells ringing beyond Boston's Back Bay. Fire-prevention officials are concerned about the failure of what has been described as the most up-to-date safety and fire-prevention equipment in use today.

The Westin installed automatic roof-top smoke vents, emergency lights, pressurized stairways, and public--address system, as well as a computerized fire-alert message system to the hotel's 804 rooms.

After a short circuit and explosion in an electrical vault burned through emergency generator cables, only the battery-powered message system and the hotel's telephones functioned properly.

Because of the New Year's Day holiday, the 36-story Westin, showpiece of the guests, staff, and firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Donald Flinn, general manager of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Washington, says he is concerned about this fire primarily because ''the built-in approach (used by the Westin) is the state-of-the-art. And if they're not going to work, we need to know. These are the systems we are banking on.''

''The Westin is a technically significant fire. One would assume with the amount of money (invested) in fire-protection equipment in the hotel, it should be close to the state-of-the-art,'' adds Thomas Klem, director of fire investigations and applied research divisions of the Fire Marshals Association of North America in Quincy, Mass.

''We really won't know until we get there (to investigate). But we're very concerned. What we will be looking at is: (1) What caused the smoke to spread and (2) the human behavior involved. We will try to map what people did in relation to the amount of smoke. From the technical point, we want to know how the smoke got so high (throughout the entire building).''

Boston Fire Commissioner George Paul, however, who was ''startled when the call came in,'' has only high praise for the hotel's fire-prevention equipment and the hotel staff working with the firefighters.

''That building is the latest state-of-the-art. All its emergency systems were tested last summer and (again) in October; it was probably a one-in-a-million chance. But this is why we're in the business,'' he adds.

The ''one-in-a-million'' fluke was the presence of the emergency generator cables in the burning electrical vault, something that the commissioner says he will recommend be changed in the Boston fire code.

According to many fire officials, Boston has one of the strictest fire codes in the country. A Boston Fire Department spokesman points out the code specifies that the emergency generators themselves be isolated from the main electrical system - a requirement that prevented a power outage in half of the city during the Westin fire.

The majority of the estimated 10,500 hotel fires each year in the United States are ''small fires such as kitchen cooking fires,'' according to Mr. Klem of the Fire Marshals Association. But ''one in every four is severe enough to call the fire department,'' he says.

In the last three years, the nation has seen about 100 serious hotel fires, with more than 300 deaths and almost 2,000 injuries, according to figures compiled by the fire marshals' 1982 fire survey.

Based on fire investigations over the years, the fire marshals have written 16 volumes of codes ranging from storage of flammable liquids to firefighter training. Mr. Klem points out that ''the codes are only recommended standards, and it's up to various jurisdictions to adopt them. Major cities either refer to some or incorporate their own language.''

At the same time, Donald Flinn says the International Association of Fire Chiefs ''has been deeply involved in a series of tests set up in surplus federal property using mock-ups of hotels, condominiums, prisons, and different types of residential property to look at fire situations from three standpoints:

* ''Alarm and smoke dectection devices.

* ''Quick-response sprinkler heads and plastic and iron pipes that carry the water to the sprinklers.

* ''Ventilation systems and different approaches to amount of air involved.''

Mr. Flinn says the results of those tests, carried out last October, are not in yet. But based on preliminary findings, he says, ''we feel very confident that you do need to give that kind of (sophisticated) protection (as installed in the Westin).''

The ''one-in-a-million'' Westin fire was probably, as fire consultant Dave Demers suggests, ''the hotel's Achilles' heel.''

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