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The case for giving hotels the same health grades as restaurants

Hotels are full of hidden hazards.

Hotel rooms are full of hidden hazards. (waferboard/Flickr)

The difference between a hotel room at $75 a night and $750 a night is the view, the extra shampoo, the cost of the pillows, the fluff of the towels. Price is a measure of comfort and service. What must always be the same — at every price — is your security, your safety and cleanliness. Unfortunately, it’s not. Across the country, hotels are skimping on key safety and security measures, and the consequences range from stolen laptops and Peeping Toms to sexual assaults and robbery at gunpoint. More than 125 property crimes are committed in hotels and motels every day, in addition to more than 21 violent crimes (excluding murders).

What’s needed is a grading system that will alert potential guests to the quality of a hotel’s security, guaranteeing that A-rated facilities have measures in place to assure guests’ safety and the rooms’ cleanliness. In New York City, Los Angeles and other cities, restaurants are graded based on government inspections and those grades are posted so you can see them before you walk in the door. Hotels and motels also are entrusted with customers’ health and safety, and they must be held equally accountable.

That accountability starts with basic security. For instance, many hotels fail to perform adequate background checks on job applicants before hiring them. In September 2011, a woman staying at a Best Western hotel in Arizona woke up in the middle of the night to find a man standing over her bed. She says the man raped her. He was a registered level-3 sex offender, according to news reports, but Best Western had hired him as a night clerk and given him a master key to guest rooms, allowing him unfettered access to turn any of its female guests into his next victims.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t unusual. Best Western fired the sex offender, but a few months later, a Marriott hotel in the same town added him to their payroll. Soon after, a woman staying at that hotel said he raped her, too. Two Arizona state senators are pushing a bill to ban hotels from giving registered sex offenders access to room keys. That is a good step, but sexual assaults are not the only threat to hotel guests.

A few years ago, the Onity electronic hotel lock was found to be easily hackable, leading to a string of hotel room break-ins and endangering 4 million rooms worldwide. Even after the company said it fixed the problem, the break-ins continued.

Fire safety is a major issue, too. While filming an episode of my show, “Hotel Impossible,” at the historic Gadsden Inn in Douglas, Ariz., I discovered that not only were all of the fire extinguishers out of date and would not have functioned properly had they been needed, but the entire alarm system had been turned off for 15 years. According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, there are about 3,900 hotel and motel fires per year, causing about 15 deaths. In nearly 60 percent of those fires, either there were no automatic extinguishing systems like sprinklers or they weren’t working. In more than 25 percent of those fires, either there were no smoke alarms or firefighters couldn’t determine if there were.

It’s not just flammable curtains and faulty electrical systems that can kill you. Last year, three guests at a Best Western in North Carolina died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty pool water heater. Reacting to those deaths, the Best Western chain announced in September that carbon monoxide detectors would be placed in every guest room throughout the country.

Pool accidents are another leading cause of accidental death in hotels. At a Quality Inn & Suites in Seattle last year, it took hotel staff and rescuers nearly three hours to find a man who had drowned in the pool because the water was so murky. A series of problems had led inspectors to close the pool about a month earlier, including improper chlorine levels and loose handrails. Guests should know whether their hotel doesn’t take basic pool safety precautions, like making life preservers and rescue hooks readily available.

Hotels vary dramatically in their level of cleanliness, too. I’ve found absurdly disgusting stains on sheets, pillowcases, blankets and floors that aren’t visible without a blue light — so guests would never know. I’ve also found heroin needles in drawers and diarrhea on the bathroom floor. In one hotel, The Empress in New Orleans, I found housekeepers using the same unwashed rags to clean bathrooms and bedrooms because the owner thought that washing rags was a waste of water.

In the absence of a hotel rating system, here’s what guests can do help ensure their own safety:

  • Read some of the good reviews to learn about service, but read all of the bad reviews. If even one mentions safety, security, cleanliness or bedbugs, stay somewhere else.
  • When you check in, familiarize yourself with fire and emergency procedures. They should be posted in the room. If not, demand them. If the hotel doesn’t have them, move out. You may only need to use an emergency escape route once in a lifetime, but that one time could be critical.
  • Check the smoke alarms yourself to make sure they are working. Never assume that someone has put fresh batteries in.

Even if you take these precautions, your safety, security and the cleanliness of your environment should not be left up to you alone. A standardized rating service is crucial.

There are a few private rating systems, like AAA, and the U.S. government compiles a little-known list of hotels that voluntarily comply with the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990. Hotels on that list have at least one smoke alarm in each guest room and, if the building is higher than four stories, an automatic fire sprinkler system in each room.

But what I’m calling for is something broader, a system that gives hotels an overall grade based on strict regulatory oversight. The rating would encompass everything, including the presence of bolt locks, chains and peepholes on every door; the number of security cameras at entrances, stairways and parking lots; and the number of employees on duty at night. An A-rating means the place meets proper standards. Anything less would be a warning to you that something is not right.

States and cities that are seriously concerned with attracting business travelers and tourists should want to adopt such a system. It would incentivize A-rated hotels to maintain high quality, while hotels with a B or lower would have a well-defined target to aim for. The rating system could be funded with a very nominal room tax, probably less than $1 a night, to assure at least two inspections a year. It’s a small price to pay to guarantee that when you check into an A-rated hotel, you know that you are secure, safe and in a clean environment. Nothing less should ever be acceptable.