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Hotel and Motel Fires By the Numbers Decades Beyond the Twin Las Vegas Tragedies

September 10, 2018

They are distant memories today, but in the early 1980s Las Vegas tourism was rocked by two devastating fires in major hotel-casinos that affected some 1,000 lives. In November 1980, an electrical fault in a wall of the MGM Grand Hotel’s deli ignited a blaze that would take 87 lives and injure more than 700 people. [1] Three months later, the Las Vegas Hilton caught fire, killing eight and injuring more than 200. [2] The Hilton employee responsible for the fire is currently in prison, and he recently claimed that he spontaneously set the blaze after smoking a joint laced with PCP and cocaine. [3]

Since those days, the incidence of hotel fires has fallen by more than two-thirds, from about 12,000 in 1980 to some 3,900 in 2016. [4] More than half of modern fires in hotels and motels are “confined,” meaning that they remain limited to the area or equipment where they begin and do not spread. The majority of confined fires in hotels and motels are cooking-related, and these fires tend to be reported but not cause significant death, injury, or even property damage. [5]

Thumb hotel and motel fires by incident 2014 2016

Although nonconfined fires are less common, when they occur the results are devastating. An average of seven people perish per 1,000 nonconfined fires in hotels and motels, compared to 3.2 deaths per 1,000 confined fires and 5.8 deaths per 1,000 fires in residential buildings. On average, nonconfined hotel fires injure another 48 people per 1,000 blazes, ten times as many as confined hotel fires and nearly twice as many as in residential fires. [6]

Data from hotel and motel fire alarms shows that the most common block of time for alarms is 5-11pm. [7] This is consistent with the two largest risks for such fires. First, many of the cooking-related, confined fires that make up the majority of all hotel/motel blazes ignite during preparation of dinner meals in the evening. (Consider the hotel restaurant kitchen as well as reckless microwave use in individual hotel rooms.) Second, hotel patrons smoking cigarettes (or other substances) in their rooms may ignite a fire. An especially risky practice is smoking in bed, which has been a factor in many deadly hotel and motel fires. [8]

Another source of risk in hotels and motels is the sheer amount of flammable material filling them. By square footage, hotels and motels have much more bedding, carpet, and linens than a typical residential unit. Indeed, the concentration of so many cloth items can pose a fire risk in itself, such as in a 2012 fire in a Virginia hotel that began because (flammable) cardboard boxes full of pillows (flammable) and linens (flammable) were stored adjacent to a gas-fired water heater. [9]

Individual guests in hotels and motels cannot control the behavior of staff or their fellow travelers, but they can take a few precautions to protect themselves. First and foremost, guests should take heed of where the exits closest to their rooms are located. The spread of fire can be unpredictable, and the safest route to escape is the one that gives the fire a wide berth. Second, guests should balance the fun of vacation with the prudence of everyday life by moderating their use of controlled substances. Falling asleep deeply intoxicated makes it more likely that one may lack the faculties to navigate a new and frightening experience when it matters most. Finally, we should take note that the electronic devices we are so attached to – from phones and televisions to microwaves and mini-fridges – are also the most likely source of a blaze. “Heat from powered equipment” is the cause of nearly three-fifths of nonconfined fires, and more than 40 percent of nonconfined fires are caused by appliance use, electrical malfunction, or heating. [10]











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