Only two of the 16 largest high-rise hotels in the Washington area say they have the extensive and sophisticated fire safety systems that Nevada officials said might have helped save lives in the tragic Las Vegas hotel fire that killed 84 people Friday.
Few of the hotels have equipped each floor with sprinkler systems, alarm systems triggered automatically at the first hint of fire or smoke detectors -- safety measures that Las Vegas officials said they urged hotels there to install.
All of the Washington-area hotels surveyed, each of which has 300 rooms or more, meet local fire codes, according to their managers and fire officials here.
Still, there is disagreement among local fire officials as to whether a fire similar to the one that swept through the MGM Grand Hotel could happen in this area, where fire prevention codes differ markedly among various jurisdictions.
None of the hotels in the District of Columbia is as tall or quite as cavernous as the MGM Grand. Most of the floors in hotels here can be reached by fire truck ladders and most are constructed of materials more fire resistant and less toxic when burning than those in the Las Vegas hotel.
"Fire could happen anywhere; it is unpredictable," said Deputy Chief Hubert Clarke, fire marshal for the District of Columbia. "But I think with our capability of a quick [fire] knockdown, especially with the construction we have here, I don't see how a fire could get that involved."
Alexandria Fire Chief Charles Rule said, "It could happen here and we've been expecting it to happen. We have the potential . . . for many miniature MGM Grand hotels."
"I would not want to say that that situation could not happen here," said George Alexander, director of Fire and Rescue Services for Fairfax County. "The potential exists."
There are no nationally accepted uniform standards regarding the amount or type of fire safety devices necessary, but local officials agree that the more automatic sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and automatic warning devices, the better. "I'm not aware of any building in the country that had a working sprinkler system throughout that has been lost to fire," said Clarke.
"What it comes down to is dollars," said Arlington Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins Jr. "You can only require so much, and then you can make some general suggestions to people. But . . . you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars" businesses would have to spend each year just to keep up with new advances.
Of the 16 hotels surveyed by The Washington Post this week, only the Marriott Pooks Hill Hotel in Bethesda and the Marriott Key Bridge Hotel in Rosslyn have sprinkler systems, automatically triggered fire alarms and smoke detectors on every floor. Three of the hotels surveyed -- the Washington Hilton, Capitol Hilton and the Hyatt Regency -- refused to provide details about fire safety, while a fourth, L'Enfant Plaza, refused to provide such information over the telephone.
Of the remaining hotels, three have installed two of the systems urged by the Las Vegas officials. They are the Sheraton Washington, the city's largest hotel, and the International Inn, both of which have automatic alarm systems and smoke detectors in all corridors. The Marriott Twin Bridges in Arlington has spinklers on every floor and smoke detectors in each room, as well as in all corridors.
The other seven hotels have some smoke detection and sprinkler protection, but not throughout the buildings. None of the seven has automatic fire alarms. The seven, all in Washington, are the Mayflower, Hotel Washington, Quality Inn Capitol Hill, the Shoreham Americana, the Dupont Plaza, the Madison and the Gramercy Inn.
Representatives of The Washington Hilton, Capitol Hilton and the Hyatt Regency said they did not feel it was appropriate to respond to The Post's questions. All emphasized that their hotels meet fire code requirements.
The District of Columbia fire code only requires that automatic sprinkler systems be installed in areas below the ground. There is no requirement that hotels have an automatic alarm system.
However, according to a new D.C. law, hotel owners must install smoke detectors in each room by next June 20. In addition, the D.C. Fire Department has proposed that sprinkler systems be made mandatory throughout newly constructed hotels, and in already existing ones within five years.
Both Prince George's and Montgomery counties require sprinklers, smoke detectors and the more sophisticated alarm systems throughout.
In Virginia, fire and building codes are state-imposed. There, builders of hotels may opt for either sprinkler systems throughout or fire wall protection. Smoke detectors have been required since 1975 in rooms and hallways and sophisticated automatic alarm systems since 1978.
The Northern Virginia officials say they would like to make the codes tougher but cannot because the codes are controlled by the state.
"We'd like to see everything fully sprinklerized," said Arlington's Hawkins. "Now, under the state code, builders have a choice. They can either install sprinklers or compartmentalize. That means build fire walls every so many thousand square feet."
At the same time, they said, the code exempts buildings constructed before it was adopted. That situation does not exist in Montgomery or Prince George's counties in Maryland, where the local jurisdictions have some discretion in tailoring their fire codes to their own needs. Both counties have made some fire safety code changes retroactive.
Without the force of law, Northern Virginia fire officials say, there is little likelihood that a hotel will act on its own to upgrade its fire safety measures. In fact, only one of the officials was able to recall an instance where a hotel voluntarily decided to install fire safety equipment not required by the code.
Fire Department officials in Las Vegas say they had for years urged MGM Grand officials to voluntarily install smoke detectors, automatic sprinkling devices and automatic alarm systems, on every floor.
The building met the fire code requirements in existence when it was built in 1973. Survivors of the Nevada fire reported that no warnings were given by the hotel that a fire was in progress. Most of those who died were overcome by smoke on the upper floors. The hotel's alarm system, which was manually operated, was burned out by the fire and never worked, according to Las Vegas fire officials.
Fire officials in the District of Columbia and the suburbs report that they conduct annual inspections of the hotels and have found some minor violations, like blocked doors, burned-out bulbs in exit lights and extinguishers out of date, but nothing of potentially catastrophic consequences.
Beyond the requirements of the fire codes, hotel officials are pretty much left to their own resources as to what measures are necessary to protect the lives of their guests.
A number of hotel managers surveyed said they are in the process of upgrading their fire safety devices.