Most fire departments have failed to plan for the type of disaster that struck the MGM Grand Hotel, federal fire officials said here this week.

While communities often have mutual aid plans for major disasters, few have held drills or have worked out potential communications problems, fire officials at a national conference were told by Michael Olsen, director of the U.S. Fire Administration's emergency medical services program.

Olsen, other Fire Administration speakers and Las Vegas Fire Chief Roy Parrish all agreed, however, that only luck had helped prevent the Nov. 21 fire at the 2,083-room MGM hotel from turning into an even greater calamity. Eighty-four persons died after a fire that began in a first floor deli sent clouds of toxic smoke to the top floors of the 26-story hotel. Sixty-four of the people who died were on the top five floors.

Parrish said the fire -- which he described as "unreal, like a science fiction movie," -- could have led to many more deaths if sprinklers had not prevented it from spending to other areas of the ground floor. The fire moved 17 feet per second after it left the deli and soon engulfed the hotel's entrance, he said.

He warned fire chiefs at the conference that "this particular fire is going to present problems for all of us in the future" and that fire departments are going to be much more involved in the legal question of fire culpability than they ever have been.

"The fire chief of today has to have an attorney at his right elbow," San Francisco Fire Chief Andrew Casper said later in an interview. Increasingly, he indicated chiefs are being held legally liable for code violations that lend to fire disaster.

In part because of poor design and faulty construction, newer high-rise buildings have the potential for disaster, some speakers here said.

"It will happen again," San Clemente Fire Chief Ron Coleman said of major disasters. "Do you know where your MGM Grand is?"

In fact, an early morning fire killed six people in a 23-story Toronto hotel shortly before this fire conference began. Smoke billowed out of elevator shafts, trapping most of the victims.

"We have the potential for many mini-MGM fires," Alexandria, Va., Fire Chief Charles Rule said in an interview. Hotel owners in Alexandria aren't compelled by law to install smoke detectors, he said, and many high-rise condominiums in the "condo canyon" of the city are without fire safety systems.