Hotel Fires Require Quick, Effective Action

An aggressive fire attack is needed at hotel fires to protect occupants in adjacent rooms and maintain their means of egress. Photo Michelle French

Hotel fires present unique challenges for fire departments. Hotels are occupied by people who likely have little knowledge of the building’s layout and egress paths, are unfamiliar with the building’s emergency procedures and alarm indications, and may be delayed in exiting because they are asleep, impaired or simply ignoring evacuation alarms. It will almost certainly be difficult to gain an accurate accounting of the number of people in the building at the time of the incident.

There are several different types of hotel buildings, including mid- or high-rise hotels (at least four stories) and low-rise hotels (three stories or less), all of which may include several complexes and detached buildings. Each building type may require somewhat different tactics, and access to some sides of the building may be limited due to the property layout, adjacent or adjoining buildings, or vehicles present to service the building.

To best protect the maximum number of hotel occupants, departments should preplan hotels in their district. An unprepared response can result in serious risks to both firefighters and hotel occupants. As such, fire departments must be aware of the types of hotels in their coverage area, what hazards are present in these occupancies and how to best respond to incidents within.

Where’s the Fire?
There are several common fire locations in a hotel, including the guest rooms, kitchen or restaurant, laundry rooms, atriums, meeting or banquet rooms, parking garages, attics and roofs. Let’s take a closer look at each area.

Guest Rooms: Perhaps the most obvious fire location is one of the guest rooms. Fighting a fire in a guest room is not significantly different than doing so at an apartment complex. To protect the rest of the occupants in the building, you must contain the fire to the room where the fire started. Most guest rooms are much smaller than an apartment, and it’s important that the door to the room be closed until the engine crew is prepared to make its interior attack. Older hotels may feature transoms (windows over the door), which can allow heat and smoke-and perhaps fire-to be transmitted from the room into the hallway. As such, the engine company must get to the fire floor as soon as possible to prevent the fire from spreading. In a perfect situation, as the engine crew prepares to enter the fire room, a ventilation crew opens the exterior windows, if they haven’t already broken out. It’s also vital to get search-and-rescue crews to the fire floor, and then to the floor(s) above the fire to ensure all victims have been removed.

Kitchen/Restaurant: These areas are also common ignition locations for hotel fires. If the building was designed properly (kitchen is separated from the rest of the building by fire walls/doors), there’s a good chance the fire will not spread throughout the building; however, the fire will likely give off a great deal of smoke. One issue to consider: Patrons/restaurant personnel may be reluctant to evacuate the area unless they perceive the situation to be truly perilous. Be prepared to make a quick attack to confirm that the fire is out, implement high-capacity ventilation and remove stubborn occupants. Close doors that connect to other areas of the hotel to isolate the problem, and check for vertical/horizontal fire spread via kitchen ductwork, even to the roof area.

Laundry: Like the kitchen/restaurant area, if the building was designed properly, the fire will likely not spread throughout the building. However, a fire in the laundry area will also create a great deal of smoke, and employees may stay in the area, attempting to control the fire. Therefore, anticipate searching for overcome employees.

Laundry areas may only be accessible from the rear or lower levels of a building, so you’ll need to figure out how to access this area. Be prepared to make a quick attack and implement high-capacity ventilation. Close doors that connect to other areas of the hotel to isolate the problem. Check for vertical/ horizontal fire spread via dryer ductwork, even to the roof area.

Atriums: Mid- or high-rise hotels may be designed with an atrium, a central hall that usually features a glass roof or skylight and extends the full height or several stories of a building. The concern with this space: Fire, smoke and heat can easily spread to multiple floors. Atriums are typically equipped with some type of smoke-removal system that’s designed to keep the majority of the smoke in the atrium so building occupants can evacuate without being exposed to a dangerous amount of smoke. When responding to a fire located outside the atrium, ensure that all the doors to the atrium are closed to control the spread of heat and smoke. If a fire alarm sounds anywhere in the building, a smoke-evacuation system may activate, creating the undesired effect of pulling smoke into the atrium.

For fires in the atrium, you’ll need to engage in rapid attack, so ensure you have attack lines of a proper length. Again, it’s important to ensure that the smoke-evacuation system is working, and atrium doors are closed to control spread of heat and smoke beyond the atrium.

Meeting/Banquet Rooms: Most hotels have some type of meeting or banquet room. These rooms may hold hundreds, if not thousands, of occupants. This is not a common fire location; however, if a fire did start here, it has the potential to be huge, particularly if arson is involved or if there’s a large amount of combustible materials, like those used for decorations or booths. Be prepared to rescue numerous victims.

Bars/Lounges: Most hotels also have at least one bar or lounge area. Fire tactics in bars and lounges are similar to those for the meeting and banquet rooms. However, it’s likely that there will be fewer people in the bar or lounge areas, but a greater amount of flammable liquid. You’ll need to engage in a rapid attack.

Parking Garages: I addressed parking garage fires in depth in the May 2004 Fire Attack column (“Changing Grades: Fighting vehicle fires in parking garages”). In the case of fires in garages under or attached to the hotel, you’ll likely need to engage in a rapid fire attack. Protect walls and doors that connect the hotel to the garage. In the case of a garage located under the hotel, ensure that smoke doesn’t spread to the hotel, or get pulled into the hotel through a ventilation system. Atrium smoke-evacuation systems may be activated by any fire alarm in the building, pulling in air from in or around the garage.

Attics/Roofs: Some low-rise hotels may include attics made of combustible construction that fosters fire spread. Hotels built under older building codes are likely “stick-built” with 2 x 4 rafters, and may not have sprinklers or fire stops. Additionally, roof construction can vary from plywood and asphalt shingles to plastic- or fiberglass-type insulation that can require large amounts of manpower to vertically ventilate.

Hotels built under newer codes likely feature lightweight truss construction, and may also be sprinklered or include some type of firestopping system. But the only way you will know for sure is to get out into your response district and check these buildings.

Fire Attack
Firefighters must always consider their ability to advance hoselines to all areas of a hotel. If hotels are equipped with standpipes, firefighters must carry standpipe hose packs of the appropriate length and diameter to attack a fire in any area of the hotel. Hose used in standpipe packs should be at least 1 1/2″ in diameter, but firefighters may want to consider larger diameter hose, such as 2″ or 2 1/2″, particularly if the hotel is of moderate or large size, is unsprinklered or features combustible construction.

For fires in hotels/motels with combustible roofs, perform a rapid attack, checking for extension into the attic space. Once fire spreads into the attic, it will travel horizontally. Photo Ryche Guerrero

If standpipes are not provided, apparatus must be equipped with attack lines that can reach any area of the hotel, and firefighters must be prepared to extend hoselines into the fire area using 2″, 2 1/2″ or larger lines.

In some cases, hotels are connected to malls, office buildings or other similar occupancies. You’ll need to monitor these connection points and protect them from the spread of fire and smoke to maintain access control to and from the hotel during an incident.

Hazardous Materials
Hazardous materials, such as cleaning chemicals, may be present in hotel environments. At one incident in New York, a chlorine-based cleaning agent was mixed with ammonia, creating some nasty fumes. Additionally, chlorine may be used in pool areas (outdoor or indoor); natural gas, propane or oil used to provide fuel for heating/cooking will likely be present in utility areas. With this in mind, responders must utilize SCBAs to conduct search-and-rescue operations, remove the hazard and ventilate the area. There should not be significant amounts of other hazardous materials in a hotel, but only preplanning will reveal this.

WMD & Illness-Related Incidents
Hotels are also potential targets for an intentional attack involving various types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Such an incident would likely involve an explosive device designed to cause structural damage and multiple casualties. Hotels may also play host to illness that rapidly strikes multiple victims.

Regardless of the type of incident, firefighters must be prepared to isolate the problem, deny entry to others, size-up the hazard and find the proper resources to help determine where they can go and what they can do while minimizing risk. Conducting a search-and-rescue operation in hotel rubble is similar to that of an apartment building or most other buildings with numerous occupants. The same is true of triaging the victims.

Don’t forget: While you may want to use all your resources in search-and-rescue or similar operations, at least some firefighters must be assigned the task of determining the cause of the incident so we don’t expose ourselves to further danger from the causal agent.

Hotel Management & Guests
One major obstacle that first responders may face is hotel management who are unwilling to evacuate the building. This is particularly likely during sleeping hours, when they won’t want to disturb guests. As such, it’s not uncommon for firefighters to arrive at a hotel fire and find that the guests are still in the building, unaware of the fire. If this is the case, you must take immediate action to alert guests of the situation and direct them to safe locations. Such actions can be complicated by foul weather, especially if an alternate evacuation location has not yet been identified. For larger numbers of guests, it may be necessary for hotel staff and/or police to help control access to and from the fire area, as there may be multiple access points.

Depending on the size of the hotel, evacuation alarms may sound for the entire building or just certain areas or floors. Determine where an evacuation is necessary, whether the current status of the evacuation alarm system is adequate and whether additional alarms should be activated. This requires at least one or two firefighters who have some knowledge of hotel alarm systems. Further, elevators, which may be connected to the alarm system, will also need to be controlled. In mid- or high-rise buildings, there are usually controls at the fire alarm panel to bring elevators down to the ground or to an alternate floor. Having access to the panel allows firefighters to control the elevators for their own use, and to prevent people who are unaware of the problem from heading upward.

Protection Features
Many hotels are sprinklered. Protection from fire will likely involve a wet-pipe system that may be combined with a standpipe system. To support the operations of the system, ensure that water supplies are operating effectively; keep valves supplying the operating system(s) fully open until the fire is extinguished and incident command determines it’s appropriate to turn the system off; and ensure fire pumps are operating properly.

Firefighters with radios should be stationed at each valve supplying the operating sprinkler system(s) until full extinguishment of the fire can be confirmed, even after the fire has been controlled. This ensures that the sprinkler supply valves are not inadvertently closed and that firefighters can quickly reactivate them should a fire suddenly rekindle.

It’s critical that one of the first-arriving engine companies pump into the sprinkler/standpipe connections to ensure adequate pressure is available to this equipment. Connect lines to the fire department pumper connection on the system, and supply them at the designated pressure; if the designated pressure is not known, pump at 150 psi.

This pumping operation should continue until incident command determines it’s appropriate to stop. Some parts of the hotel may have numerous sprinkler systems and, therefore, numerous fire department connections. A couple of clues to help you determine which system is operating and, thus, which system you should connect to: an operating water motor gong above or next to the connection, and water discharging from the main drain line below or next to the connection. However, these clues don’t always identify the correct connection. To be sure, you must survey the building before a fire and clearly mark the correct connections.

Hotel kitchens usually include wet chemical discharge systems over the cooking areas. There may also be specialty systems, such as gaseous suppression systems, to protect hotel computer and/or phone system control rooms. While the systems are likely designed to operate automatically in a fire, it’s possible that they will not have activated upon the fire department’s arrival; therefore, you must make a decision about whether to manually activate the system. In any case, it’s important to allow the system to do its job and to wear breathing apparatus when entering areas protected by these types of systems.

Hotel phone or computer rooms may also have an early-warning smoke-detection system that will require your best investigation skills to determine why the system activated. These systems sample the air in the protected area and can detect invisible smoke particles that may result simply from overheated wiring. Thermal imagers and good detective work are necessary to check the entire protected area to determine if a fire may be in a “pre-incident” state. Survey the building in advance to understand why these systems are there and how best to use them at an incident.

Ladder Ops & Ventilation
Various building features may ease ladder company operations at hotel fires. Stairways or access ladders lead to roofs and can be used to vertically ventilate the building. Make sure ventilation is performed after victims are removed, unless the tactic is employed specifically to clear the stairtower so occupants can exit.

Depending on the type of hotel, exterior windows may be sealed shut. Determine the necessity and safety of breaking the windows for ventilation purposes. Some windows may have been designed not to break; others may have been designed to allow firefighters to “push” them in from the outside.

Additionally, many hotels have heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment that’s designed to control and/or evacuate smoke from the building. This can include pressurization of the stairwells. The controls are likely located at a centralized area in the building. A knowledgeable firefighter or officer with radio communications should work with a building engineer to activate/deactivate the building systems as needed to pressurize or exhaust portions of the building and ease evacuation and firefighting.

Truck companies may need to work hard to establish a good position for their aerial devices. A corner of the building can be an excellent location (so two sides of the building can be “scrubbed” by the aerial), or the engineer may have to drive the truck onto the lawn or up a path to find a position that will allow the aerial to make the greatest impact on the largest number of stories.

Further, forcible entry will be a challenge in hotels, particularly when attempting to access guest rooms. Obtain a master key from hotel personnel as quickly as you can. In many cases, traditional axe and Halligan bar combinations won’t cut it-literally. Crews will quickly lose energy if they have to manually force these doors, which will probably be equipped with a deadbolt and a chain or crossing-bar locking mechanism. You’ll likely need hand-held hydraulic ram tools, particularly if you need to force multiple guest room doors. Take these with you when entering the building; they shouldn’t be a second thought.

A Final Note
As with most other types of occupancies, the most important thing a fire department can do to prepare for hotel incidents is to preplan the buildings. So get involved in preplanning during the design/construction phases of any new hotels in your response district.

At all hotel incidents, unless the building is vacant, dealing with life-safety issues is the primary concern for the incident commander. As such, upon arrival, be sure that hotel staff meets up with you (and stays with you) to assist in providing occupant lists and guiding your response. Think about how you can advance hoselines to all the potential areas in the building. First-arriving firefighters must ensure that evacuation alarms are effectively working and try to isolate the fire so occupants can escape. Quick, effective action will save lives.


Hotels are occupied by people who likely have little knowledge of the building's layout and egress paths, are unfamiliar with the building's emergency procedures and alarm indications, and may be delayed in exiting because they are asleep, impaired or simply ignoring evacuation alarms.

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