MGM fire 40th anniversary: The state of fire life safety

Smoke billowed into the blue sky above a 1980-version of the Las Vegas skyline on a crisp Nov. 21 morning. The cloud was coming from the MGM, which is now Bally’s, and while it looked from the outside as if the interior was completely engulfed in flames, the fire was contained to the main floor. The smoke, however, spread across the casino and hotel floors via elevator shafts, trapping occupants in their rooms and leaving them to huddle together in front of elevators, which they had no way of knowing had collapsed in their shafts.

Smoke was the leading cause of death among 85 killed in the third-worst hotel fire in United States history, dating back to the 1880s.

A report, completed by the Clark County Fire Department in March the following year, concluded numerous smoke dampers in the air handling ducts did not function properly, contributing greatly to the smoke spread, and “Dampers in the main unit over the casino were, in fact, bolted in such a manner as to make them inoperable.” (The entire report can be viewed here.)

Forty years later, members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), led by the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC), are fighting to make HVAC Fire Life Safety law, via city and county ordinances and statewide legislation, across the United States.

Fire and smoke dampers are installed into new HVAC units but are oftentimes forgotten when inspecting other facets of a complete fire life safety system, such as sprinklers. While sprinklers douse flames, dampers keep smoke and fire from traveling through the HVAC system, protecting occupants and allowing them safe passage out of the building while giving first responders a safe way inside to fight the fire.

Smoke spread is prevented when dampers close due to a specific high temperature or smoke detection. If those dampers aren’t regularly exercised, they can freeze and fail to operate as designed. Also, over the years, wires, cables and other obstacles can be placed in their way, or they can be bolted shut by unknowing parties, as occurred at the MGM in 1980.

Regular inspections identify inoperable dampers and save lives.

In the last eight years, the following cities and counties have passed fire life safety inspection rulings: Vanderburgh County, Evansville and Booneville, Indiana; Hamilton and Franklin counties, Dayton, Columbus and Chillicothe, Ohio; Lansing, Michigan; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia; and Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain and Lucas counties and the cities of Garfield Heights, Broadview Heights, Warrensville Heights, North Royalton, Strongsville, Cleveland, Olmstead Falls and Lorain, Ohio.

States that have adopted fire life safety inspection legislation include New Mexico, Nevada and Washington. Areas pursuing legislation include Carol Stream, Illinois; Maryland areas served by Local 100; St. Louis; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Waukesha, Wisconsin; Alaska; New York City area served by Local 28; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento, Fresno and Santa Ana, California.

Although they each have their own details, most legislation and ordinances share similarities anchored in public safety and the requirement that inspection of the dampers be carried out by trained and International Certification Board (ICB)-certified technicians.

When contractors in Texas started going after fire life safety inspection and maintenance work a decade ago, many contractors were on the fence about creating a new division, taking on additional work or hiring those with the proper certifications.

Tom Martin Jr., president of T.H. Martin, Inc. and president of Cleveland-area SMACNA, was not one of those contractors. The full plumbing and mechanical contractor operates a sheet metal division, which employs more than 100 union sheet metal workers — 50% of the company’s overall employment.

“It’s been a great avenue for us to secure additional work. It’s an important part to make sure things are functioning correctly, but from a contractor’s standpoint, we’ve been able to do that work,” Martin said. “It’s great for us, and it’s great for our industry.”

The path to passing law typically begins with a demonstration to illustrate the severity of inoperable dampers for local fire departments, inspectors and politicians. After all, it’s a public safety issue first, said Scott Hammond, director of research for NEMIC.

“I’ve never had an inspector or fire official tell me, ‘This is stupid. You shouldn’t be doing this,’” Hammond said.

From there, labor and management work together to show decision makers the same thing — fire life safety saves lives. Although it can differ from area to area, many laws are passed to require regular inspections in places such as government buildings, health care facilities, institutions such as colleges and universities, and assisted-living facilities.

Over the years, contractors and their employees have had to educate an unaware population about fire life safety. They’ve come far in eight years, Martin said.

“It’s on more people’s radar. They understand the concept and safety aspects more,” Martin said. “You don’t have to educate as much. It’s getting easier.

In the Cleveland area, Martin said approximately six contractors are willing and able to do the work, make the presentations and eventually help pass legislation in areas that don’t already have it. Relationships with vendors, manufacturers and labor partners help keep collaboration high.

“It was a labor-management decision to get involved,” he said. “We work together. It has been a great LMCC (Labor Management Cooperative Committee) initiative locally.”

The training centers in the area also jumped on board to train apprentices and journey persons who wanted to take the courses and earn the certifications necessary to complete fire life safety inspections and repairs. Currently, approximately 75 sheet metal training centers across the country have fire life safety courses currently available for apprentices and continuing education, said Mike Harris, International Training Institute (ITI) program administrator.

The training helps to keep members working and allows contractors to bid that work.

“We have two employees daily working in fire life safety,” Martin added. “It’s not a huge percentage of my business, but it’s a nice carve-out. It keeps that market share. It’s great for the end-user because they know these systems are going to work correctly.”

Many locals have either hired an outside organization to work to pass laws in their areas or utilize a lobbyist to lay the groundwork for them. Hammond provides NEMIC support, sharing information and virtual maps to legislation and ordinances to help members in cities, counties and states do the same.

“You have to build the infrastructure before you get it passed to complete the work,” Hammond said. If the ordinance requires inspections, for instance, what is the plan to ready the workforce to do those inspections and how do you enforce it? “Getting more and more contractors and technicians on board is the key.”

Hammond speculates by the end of 2021, three to four additional areas will have passed legislation or ordinances.

“Every year, you see more and more work for fire life safety, both ongoing projects and requests for proposals,” Martin said. “Hopefully, we will keep expanding this discipline within our business.”

The National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) is a not-for-profit organization jointly funded by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association). NEMIC identifies opportunities, seeking to create or expand employment for SMART members and programs that assist SMACNA contractors.

For more information on emerging market opportunities in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry, contact the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) at call 800-458-6525.

Cleveland-area SMACNA, HVAC fire life safety, International Training Institute (ITI), Labor Management Cooperative Committee, Las Vegas, MGM, Mike Harris, National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC), Scott Hammond, Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation (SMART), Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA), Sheet Metal Local 100, Sheet Metal Local 28, T.H. Martin Inc., Tom Martin Jr.
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