How to Survive a Hotel Fire

When people are caught in a hotel fire, it can be even more disorienting than at home, because they are in unfamiliar surroundings, often asleep. In 1980, a fire at the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas killed 85 people. A few months later, a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight more. A 1993 fire at Chicago’s residential Paxton Hotel killed 20 people.

To demonstrate the dangers, Primetime staged two demonstrations with the help of the Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Department in southern Florida. In the first, the department staged a controlled “live burn” at an abandoned hotel to show how quickly a fire can turn deadly. In the second, with the help of the Sheraton Yankee Trader hotel, a high-rise on the city’s beachfront, the department used theatrical smoke to simulate two fires, each time testing the reactions of 16 volunteer guests. The volunteers were told that they would be participating in a show about survival, but they did not know there would be a simulated fire.

In the live fire at the abandoned hotel, a trashcan fire caused by a discarded cigarette took just seconds to engulf the bed, then the desk and soon the ceiling. Within 30 seconds, thick black smoke had filled the room and started seeping into the hallway. A minute later, the smoke had covered the ceiling of the hallway and begun to descend, extinguishing the remaining light and oxygen. By that point, the heat inside the room was reaching temperatures as high as 950 degrees, shattering mirrors and the TV screen. The oxygen level, at a normal 21 percent of the air before the fire, had decreased to 12 percent, low enough to kill. With the difference between life and death often a matter of seconds, not minutes, fire safety officers suggest the following tips:

Check the hallway when you arrive

As soon as you arrive in your room, check the floor plan on the back of the door that shows the location of the fire exits. Go out into the hallway and count the doors to the closest exits so you will be able to find them in the dark and smoke of a fire. In the experiment at the Sheraton Yankee Trader, none of the 16 guests inspected the hallway when they arrived.

Leave your room key where you can find it

When you go to sleep, leave your room key on the bedside table so you can find it quickly.

If you hear an alarm, check the door for heat

If the fire alarm goes off, test the room door with the back of your hand to see if it is hot, which could indicate there is fire in the hallway. Use the back of your hand to test.

If the door is not hot, open it

If the door is not hot, open it cautiously and if you have visibility — at least near the floor — make your way to the nearest exit.

If you leave, take your key but leave your belongings

If you leave the room, take your room key in case you have to return. Leave your belongings — every second counts. In Primetime’s simulation, many of the volunteers took their time leaving, wasting precious time as they debated what valuables to take or gathered up watches, fanny packs and so on.

Stay low!

If there is smoke in the corridor, stay low. In the live fire at the abandoned hotel, temperature checks showed that just outside the room where the fire was burning, the hallway was a safe 87 degrees near the floor. But at the top of the hallway it was 137 degrees — hot enough to induce third-degree burns, down to the bone, in just five seconds. There is far less oxygen higher up as well as a greater amount of CO which can kill.

If there is too much smoke, stay in your room

If you can’t see your way to the exit, put wet towels under the door and call 9-11 to report your location. Stay near the window but don’t open it, and wait for help.

If blocked, return to your room

If you try to get to the exit but find that it is blocked or the smoke and heat are too much, return to your room, seal the doors with wet towels and fill the tub with water. It is safer to wait inside your room than inside a smoke-filled hallway. In the experiment at the Sheraton Yankee Trader, the 16 guests stayed in the smoke-filled hallway when they found the exit was blocked, yelling and banging at the door instead of returning to their rooms. If the theatrical smoke used in the simulation had been real, they might have died. “They should be back in their rooms defending their place,” said Division Chief Stephen McInerny of the Fort Lauderdale department.

Never use Elevator

Walk down the corridor and find fire exit.. Remember, never use the elevator in a fire – the call buttons may take you to a floor filled with smoke or flames

Tip to traveler

It’s a good Idea to always pack a flashlight in your suitcase. You may need it to guide yourself through smoke or darkness.

Finally if you can, try to stay no higher than the seventh floor as that is the height of the normal aerial rescue ladder.

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