Fire anniversary serves as benchmark for Fire Life Safety industry

Sheet metal workers, cities work together to educate, prevent another tragedy

It’s been called the worst disaster in Nevada history and the third-worst fire in United States history, but the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (now Bally’s) on Nov. 21, 1980 can also be called something else – a benchmark for change.

Eighty-seven people died that day, and although it can’t be directly correlated, it was also the day things began to change for the better. While the event cannot be correlated directly to the improvement of smoke and fire dampers or the use of sprinklers, the increase in quality, quantity, efficiency and safety regarding dampers today cannot be ignored, said John Klote, PE, a smoke control expert.

“The MGM fire was a surprising lesson for many, and it reinforced my commitment and that of many others to continue working to improve fire protection,” said Klote, also a member of the investigation team from the Center of Fire Research and the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) on site days after the fire.

The tragedy helped bring to light fire prevention measures and the dangers lurking in hotel HVAC systems. For starters, there were only sprinklers in some of the areas of the MGM Grand. Five months after the fire, a bill passed in the Nevada Legislature requiring sprinkler systems in all homes, motels, office buildings and apartments higher than 55 feet. Sprinklers were also required in showrooms and other public gathering places of more than 15,000 square feet.

Studies in 2005 and 2006 proved the success rate of sprinklers in building fires at about 90 percent. Even sprinklers back then, had they been properly installed, would have successfully suppressed the fire at its origin in the hotel’s deli with little or no loss of life, Klote said.

“The idea was if you had a fire in one of the hotel rooms, sprinklers in the corridors would stop it from spreading,” he added. “After the MGM Grand, no one wanted to talk about that. Suddenly, the phrase was ‘fully sprinklered.’ That was a major change. The fire had a major impact in getting buildings sprinklered.”

Although Klote can’t directly correlate the MGM Grand fire’s impact on the improvement of smoke and fire dampers, he said the increase in quality, quantity, efficiency and safety regarding dampers today cannot be ignored.

In 1980, fire and smoke dampers weren’t tested to see if they worked with airflow after installation. Typically, a system should shut down before the dampers closed, but fires didn’t cooperate, Klote said.

“The ones I saw [at the MGM Grand] just didn’t close, and that was a big building with a lot of dampers,” he added. “Dampers are much better now. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the actual cause of them being better?’ There’s not a direct cause and effect, but you have to believe [the MGM fire] had something to do with it.”

The smoke tracks around the elevator shafts and in an elevator lobby, where a group of people died huddled together due to smoke inhalation, is an image that comes to memory when Klote speaks of the fire. On that day, the elevator shaft was an expressway for bad air.

“A few years after the fire, the Uniform Building Code (UBC) required enclosed elevator lobbies for many buildings, and this smoke control feature is a requirement in the UBC today,” Klote added.

A “fully sprinklered” building would have likely suppressed the fire at its core, but properly working smoke dampers would have saved lives. The dampers in the main unit over the casino were “bolted in such a manner to make them inoperable” and “products of combustion were distributed through the tower by the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) equipment,” according to the Clark County Fire Department’s investigation report.

These facts are used by sheet metal workers in Columbus and near Cleveland, Ohio as well as in Phoenix to educate local fire officials, building owners, managers and inspectors, and politicians on the importance of fire and smoke damper inspections.

Dampers, included in every ventilation system, are designed to contain smoke and fire, keep it from spreading and save the lives of occupants and first responders. Many of the dampers, however, go years without inspection, increasing the danger to building occupants.

Ordinances in Columbus and near Cleveland have been passed to establish a fire and smoke damper inspection program for buildings owned and operated by the cities to ensure dampers are in proper working order. In Phoenix, Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 359 hosts classes for local fire chiefs, marshals and inspectors to educate them about the importance of fire and smoke damper inspections.

Creating awareness and training workers to complete the maintenance and inspections are the first steps. Although HVAC Fire Life Safety is common in hospitals, owners of other large buildings – like the former MGM Grand – don’t realize what can happen when dampers fail. Until they do.

Technicians and inspectors have the knowledge to keep systems in working order, and HVAC contractors who want to provide the service can add HVAC Fire Life Safety to their list of services with minimal financial impact, said Chuck Holt, National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) administrator.

“If contractors have workers with certifications, they can get work,” Holt added. “Certifications are free to contractors, free to the workers.”

The countrywide goal of NEMIC, which identifies emerging markets for the unionized sheet metal industry, as well as the International Training Institute (ITI), the industry’s educational arm, is to educate and prevent another catastrophe and put sheet metal workers on the job to help do just that.

“When I learned about this, I realized this is something that can really save lives,” said Bernie Brill, executive director for Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) Mid-Atlantic chapter. “I was dumbfounded people conduct inspections of extinguishers and alarms but are not looking at dampers.”

Demonstrating how fire and smoke dampers operate was instrumental in the passage of the Columbus ordinance, said Scott Hammond, business manager for Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 24, which provides training and proctors certification exams to employees of local contractors doing the inspections. During demonstrations, smoke is released into three HVAC systems – one in working order, one that fails and one that is inoperable – to illustrate the level of severity.

“It gives them an actual visual of what can happen in case of fire, how the smoke can get into the HVAC system and how important fire damper inspection is,” Hammond said. “We are continuing to reach out to other political allies and present demonstrations to get everyone on board with the program.”

This year’s 35th anniversary of the MGM disaster is a reminder about how far the industry has come and, yet, how far it still needs to go. Fire Life Safety inspections aren’t required in every major city – yet.

The reduction of cigarette smoking, the increase in code requirements, including full sprinkler installation in high-rise and commercial buildings, advances in smoke control, and improvements in fire and smoke detection have made the United States safer from fire since 1980. The most important part – to learn from what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“We want to remember,” he said. “We had fires after that, but that fire changed the way people thought about fire. You never have an understanding of what a fire is like in a big building until you’ve gone to one. You never have an understanding of what a fire is like where people died until you’ve gone to one. You have to learn. You can look at the floor at the smoke pattern where someone died. You go into a hotel room where someone died. It has an effect on you for the rest of your life. You learn a lot of things.

“Seeing that fire hardened my reserve to work in this area. We’ve been successful and we have fewer people dying in fires today.”