The head of the U.S. Fire Administration said here today that public apathy about fire dangers allows the existence of hundreds of buildings across the country with the disaster potential of the MGM Grand Hotel.

"Americans don't give a damn about fire," Administrator Gordon Vickery told reporters at a press conference here to release his agency's preliminary report on the Nov. 21 fire in Las Vegas that took 84 lives. Such tragedies, however, help focus attention on fire safety he said.

Vickery called for tax credits for owners of existing buildings who make efforts to fireproof their properties, and he urged changes in the way polyurethane-loaded household goods are manufactured. He also asked for statutory authority for his small Commerce Department agency to investigate major fires.

While Vickery laid most of the blame for deaths in the MGM fire on the massive hotel's ventilating system, which he described as of "poor design," he also said the design was fairly unique. "You could go anywhere in America and not find a ventilating system like MGM's" he said.

What other hotels and public buildings share with MGM is a lack of posted directions on how to get out, plastic furnishings that are potentially lethal when burned and construction that local fire codes have outdated, he said.

If the Las Vegas hotel had a sprinkler system throughout, for instance, the fire that started with an electrical short in a delicatessen wall would have been "a small, incipient fire that would have been put out," the fire administrator said. Or, he noted, if there had been smoke detectors everywhere in the building, someone would have noticed smoke early enough to prevent the spread of the fire.

The Fire Administration's report, put together by a team of federal investigators that will report later on the medical and behaviorial aspects of the tragedy, does not dispute the findings of the Clark County, Nevada, Building Department, which said that code violations were partly to blame for the rapid spread of smoke in the 26-story hotel.

Vickery said that, while his agency was leaving the question of code violations to local authorities, the design of the hotel's ventilating system "indicated illegality." An unobstructed, 26-story ventilating shaft above the hotel's casino allowed dense black smoke to stream to the top five floors, where most of the victims were found, he said.

Asked about culpability in the fire, Vickery said the blame "ultimately is always the fault of the people who built the building." MGM Grand, one of the largest hotels in the world, was built in 1973 by a company that split off from MGM Film Co.

San Francisco Fire Chief Andrew Casper, who joined Vickery in the preliminaries of the fire agency's National Fire Conference here, was blunt in his assessment of the MGM tragedy.

The hotel, he said, was a "sieve" that allowed smoke to travel beyond walls, up elevator shafts and through the air-conditioning system into guest rooms. Casper said he'd "like to see something done on the federal level" about the preponderance of potentially lethal polyurethane in household furnishings like those used in the hotel.

But Vickery reiterated that his agency doesn't believe "the mood of the country will stand for much more government," that questions of code violations and building standards will have to be addressed on a local level.

He said it was essential, however, that his agency be given free access to investigate major fires. It currently has to request permission from local officials.

He cited the "lack of cooperation" a week ago, for instance, in Keansburg, N.J., where police ordered the demolition of a nursing home where 30 persons had perished in a fire. His administration had hoped to investigate the causes of the blaze, Vickery said.