Hotel fire-safety systems in US need to be upgraded, study says

You've just checked into your hotel room: The carpet is plush and clean, the bed is king-size and has just the right firmness, the large-screen TV gets 60 channels, and the shower water is hot. But . . . is the room safe? That depends on what city, or state, you are visiting. Today's hotel-motel guest tends to be peripatetic; he-she lives in the whole country -- or world. Building codes and fire safety regulations are parochial, although more or less based on national models.

Boston Fire Marshall John D. White, backed by researchers in the Boston department's Fire Prevention Division, has for some years spearheaded a drive for better, more uniform fire protection -- not only in Massachusetts, but nationwide. Recently the department's efforts were focused on hotel fire safety. In August it published a report based on a survey of fire codes and laws for hotels in the top 10 business-travel destinations in the United States: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angele s, New York, San Francisco, Tampa, and Washington.

Mr. White, who is also Boston's deputy fire chief, emphasizes that the purpose of the study was not to ``rate one city against another,'' but to impress officials, hotel owners, and patrons with ``the need to upgrade fire-safety systems.''

He says there is ``growing concern, nationally, in the fire-safety area,'' spurred to a great extent by a rash of widely publicized fires in recent years in which there were fatalities.

Edward V. Clougherty, the Boston Fire Department chemist who directed the hotel study, explained in an interview that there are four basic elements in a fire-prevention system: detection and notification, automatic sprinkler protection, operational safety features (such as doors that automatically close and compartmentalization of high-rise structures), and fire-resistant room furnishings.

All but three of the cities surveyed -- Chicago, Dallas, and Washington -- require full sprinkler systems in hotels more than 70 feet high, according to the survey. Most have regulations requiring fire-retardent floor and wall coverings. But only Boston requires that all furnishings, including upholstered furniture and mattresses, be fire-resistant. (The Port Authority of New York has similar requirements for guest rooms under its jurisdiction.)

Dr. Clougherty and other experts note that 33 percent of hotel-room fires start in furnishings. Two-thirds of these are ignited in mattresses, he points out.

Fire-proofing of room furnishings is essential, says Fire Marshall White, because of something called ``flashover.'' That is a point at which the heat is sufficient to ignite all flammable material, and a room ``becomes an inferno.'' That flash point, he notes, is lower than many people might suspect.

Clougherty and White emphasize that materials -- fiberglass and other substances -- are available now for making room furnishings virtually flame-proof. Foam mattresses are manufactured now that will not ignite even when a flame is applied directly to them.

But most local and state regulations do not dictate use of such products in hotel rooms.

White and others in the fire-prevention field are urging that fire codes be strengthened. Meanwhile, hotel and motel owners are beginning to ``retrofit'' rooms with sprinklers and flame-resistant furnishings to protect their own interests as well as patrons' lives. Recent court cases have established that hotel owners can be held liable for injuries and deaths, even though they have complied with local fire codes.

Some hotel and motel chains are beginning to redo rooms with fire-resistant materials. Holiday Inns has opened a ``prototype'' flame-resistant room at its Memphis headquarters. Dave Jones, senior vice-president of the firm's Hotel Services Division, says investment in flame-resistant rooms could improve the liability situation for Holiday Inns franchises and reduce insurance costs in the long run.

Boston's Clougherty points out that fire departments don't make their own codes, they can only enforce requirements in local and state building codes and fire protection ordinances.

``Some years back, when my father was a building inspector,'' he recalls, ``people like him had a lot of clout. When he told an owner to take care of something, it was done. Nowadays, the first thing an owner does is hand the inspector his lawyer's business card.''

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