For many years, the way-ward traveler assumed a great deal of risk when signing the guest register at a hotel to spend the night. Our fire history is replete with hotel disasters, including the Hotel Winecoff in Atlanta, where scores of people perished in a hotel that proclaimed itself to be “absolutely fireproof.” While the level of risk has considerably diminished through improved fire safety techniques, the potential for catastrophe still exists in many of these structures.

Hotels combine several concerns under one roof-large occupant loads unfamiliar with their surroundings as well as the scattering of individuals with poor fire safety habits throughout the building. Hazards include the proverbial smoker, the kitchen in the restaurant, the laundry room in the basement, and the chlorine cylinders at the pool.

What’s a fire inspector to do in today’s modern hotel? Here are some inspection nuggets for consideration.

  • Doors, doors, DOORS! Why the concern about doors? Well, it’s really the door closers that we are concerned about. Although these simple little devices are a pain in the neck to people with a pile of luggage, they can literally mean the difference between life and death for these same people as they sleep. Many of the casualties in hotel fires are from smoke inhalation-often because the door to the room of origin was left open by the fleeing occupant.

Make sure these devices are present and working. As you perform your walkthrough, have the hotel manager open some of the doors for you. Knock before you open-you don’t want any visual surprises! Check the doors. Do they close unassisted? If you find a bad door closer and suspect that other door closers are defective, check them all.

Look at the stairwell doors. Do they allow egress-are they unlocked and unblocked? How about reentry from the stairwell back onto the floor-are the doors locked on the stairwell side? If they are, find out who approved that arrangement and when. The building codes have very specific requirements for reentry locks-often they were installed illegally. While you’re in the stairwell (did you get locked in?), check the bottom of the shaft for illicit storage-it’s almost always there!

  • Fire protection equipment. Your “normal” inspection of a standpipe, sprinkler system, or fire alarm system applies here. Check the fire extinguishers for inspection tags. Pay particular attention to sprinkler heads and detectors that have been painted or blocked. Look for OmegaTM sprinkler heads that have not been replaced.

Many hotels use extended-coverage sidewall heads-a lot of pressure is needed to “throw” the water across the room. Watch for sprinkler systems whose water supply has been diminished. If you suspect a pressure drop in the system below the head’s required operating pressure, require a new set of hydraulic calculations to verify whether these heads will operate properly.

Check the fire alarm panel-what does it look like, what does it indicate? Very often, these panels are located in the lobby near the front desk, since the “lobby people” are often responsible for monitoring the panel and calling the fire department. While you’re there, give the front desk clerk a quick quiz: “What would you do right now if the fire alarm panel went off?” Don’t be surprised if he says, “What fire alarm panel?”

Look for the duct smoke detectors. Many hotels use individual air conditioning in each room but use a system (with duct detectors) to handle the corridors and the like. Check the system’s condition and their associated relays. Do they shut down the air-handling systems as is typically required? If they are part of a smoke management system, then do your research and find out what the system is supposed to do.

It’s not a bad idea to ask to be present when the hotel fire protection systems are checked as a group. With the integration of fire alarm systems, smoke management systems, elevator recall, stairwell pressurization, and so on, into a single fire protection “package” that is “asked” to perform together during a fire emergency, it’s essential to see that they work as intended. This should be done at least annually, with you in attendance!

  • The kitchen. See “So You Have to Inspect ellipse A Restaurant” (Fire Engineering, April 2000, page 48). The same requirements apply.
  • The laundry. Wow, it’s hot in here! Pay attention to the industrial-size dryers they use for the soiled linens. They are often gas-fired, and often with exposed flames. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is certainly true here. Watch for combustibles in the vicinity of the burners. They are a ready source of fuel for a fire. Check the lint removal “equipment.” Fires in ductwork can be a major problem for firefighters.
  • The pool. Check the chlorine cylinder, if there is one. Remember, we now enforce hazardous materials regulations, many of which are not fire-related. Chlorine falls into this category. Check the pool “house” for mixes of incompatible materials (muriatic acid and pool chlorine chemical compounds, for example). Make sure any compressed chlorine cylinders are properly secured. In some cases, special exhaust systems will have to be provided, especially if the pool and pool house are indoors. This can get complicated; check the hazardous materials and compressed gas chapters of your fire code for specifics.
  • The lobby. Plenty of overstuffed sofas here! If they’re in an atrium, their combustibility is limited. Check your fire code for the specific combustibility characteristics permitted.
  • Corridors. Make sure hotel corridors are clear of combustibles prohibited by your code (some codes are more specific/lenient in this regard).

Ask the Engineer

Editor’s note: This column is the first in a series presented by the Fire Service Committee (FSC) of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) in an effort to engage in a more effective dialogue and information exchange with the fire service. It does not reflect the views of the Society. The SFPE FSC is comprised of practicing engineers who are also involved in fire service operations, engaged in both suppression and/or engineering roles. For further information regarding any fire protection engineering issue, or to submit a question for subsequent columns, please contact Scott G. Nacheman at LZA Technology ( or Daniel J. Lazarz at AHA Consulting Engineers (

The flames are rolling overhead as the heat begins to bank down, forcing you even closer to the floor. The temperature is now nearing 1,0007F. You think to yourself, “Why hasn’t the room flashed over yet? Why hasn’t the structure overhead failed?” You continue to reevaluate the fire conditions, to determine the best strategy. Just then, it happens. The entire room is engulfed in a ball of flame. What do you do? Normally this would not be a question, as a plume of superheated gas would have inundated everything in the room. But this time you have a choice. Perhaps you should try a different size design fire, change the interior finish and furnishings, or provide a suppression system.

Obviously this is not an actual fire but rather a computer model used by an engineer to evaluate the level of protection offered by a building’s engineered fire and life safety systems. Just as firefighters are called on every day to protect lives and property, another group of individuals is equally responsible for fighting the flames, just in a different way. They are fire protection engineers (FPEs).

Q: What is a fire protection engineer?

A: While fire protection engineering is not necessarily a new discipline, it has been receiving substantially more attention in recent years because of the increase in the complexity of building design and construction materials. Through careful planning and analysis, FPEs apply scientific and engineering knowledge to aid in the protection from fire and the minimization of damage should a fire occur. FPEs utilize the basic knowledge and skills of other engineering disciplines including civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering to analyze fire and the effects of fire on buildings and people.

New developments have allowed FPEs to systematically evaluate a building’s response to fire. Structural performance, effectiveness of fire protection systems, as well as the expected degree of occupant and rescuer safety can now be predicted with new levels of accuracy. This increase in technology has created an even more important role for FPEs in the building design and construction process.

FPEs are employed in many different sectors. Many work for consulting engineering firms that specialize in building design and fire safety. These FPEs are responsible for analyzing the potential fire hazards in new or existing buildings, in addition to designing fire and life safety components such as detection and suppression systems to minimize fire. Other FPEs often find themselves investigating fires after an incident has occurred. Their specialized knowledge and skills make them an integral part of the cause-and-origin team as well as failure analysis investigations. Still other FPEs are employed by the government, both local and federal, as part of investigation teams as well as acting as consultants for government design projects, research, or codes and standards bodies. Yet other FPEs are engineers employed by a local building department or fire marshal’s office. In this arena, the FPE is often the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) responsible for assuring the adequacy of the fire and life safety level provided by buildings. Additionally, some FPEs have strong fire service interests and serve as full-time fire department employees or volunteer firefighters. FPEs serving in the ranks can provide numerous valuable services including firefighting and command duties, post-incident evaluations, plans examination, fire prevention inspections, fire investigation, firefighter training, and countless other technical and front-line functions.

While the structure of the job is different for each of these types of engineer, there are basic commonalities that tie them all together. In each of these roles, the FPE is directly responsible for the protection of life of not only a building’s occupants but also the firefighter who is called on to protect the public when there is a fire. In this capacity, the role of the FPE complements that of the firefighter, as they both are dedicated to the prevention of damage and loss of life from fire.

GLENN P. CORBETT is a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a captain with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. He previously held the position of administrator of engineering services with the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department. Corbett has a master of engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He authored two chapters on fire prevention/protection in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). Corbett has been in the fire service since 1978.

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