If you’ve ever traveled, either for work, family, or fun, you’ve probably gone through the ritual of comparing hotel prices, locations, and amenities to find the ideal temporary place to hang your hat. What you may not have considered, when selecting your hotel, is how well prepared it is to protect you from fire.
Gauging how fire-safe a hotel is can be difficult before you check in, and sometimes even afterward. Just because there’s a smoke detector in your room doesn’t mean it’s been recently serviced, or that the lights won’t go out right when you need them to find your way to the exit.
Of course, these are some of the last things travelers should have to worry about when planning a trip. That’s what we have building codes for: to ensure hotels and other public places are consistently safe for visitors. Unfortunately, hotels don’t always take these regulations as seriously as they should.
Georgia’s Hotel Fire History Has Shaped Modern Building Codes
Once touted as “fireproof” for its steel construction, in much the way the Titanic was touted as “unsinkable,” the Winecoff Hotel in downtown Atlanta caught fire in 1946, killing 119 people, including its owners and a group of 30 visiting high school students.
The Winecoff had no fire escapes, and its central staircase acted as a chimney, funneling smoke and flames upward from the initial ignition point on the third floor. No alarm was sounded, and the fire department was not called until nearly half an hour after the fire was noticed. By that time, the stairs were impassible, and guests were climbing or jumping from their windows, many to their deaths.
Technically, the structure itself was fireproof, which is how it survived to be renovated and reopened as the Ellis Hotel in 2007. That’s all its fireproof label really meant for insurance purposes, but that label had also been used to advertise the hotel to guests. In terms of guests’ priorities — staying alive, uninjured, and preferably in possession of the same property they checked in with — calling the Winecoff “fireproof” was a blatant lie.
The Winecoff Hotel tragedy soon became the inspiration for the Georgia Building Exit Code, as well as national standards for fire safety and prevention.
Today, hotels are legally required to provide fire safeguards that the Winecoff didn’t have, safeguards that save countless lives from structure fires every year. However, as nice as it would be to imagine that the troubles of 1946 are all in the past, many Georgia hotels are still not as safe as they should be or claim to be, and guests continue to die, sustain serious injuries, and lose their possessions to preventable disasters.
Only a year before the Ellis’s grand opening, Georgia suffered another deadly hotel fire at the Atlanta Holiday Inn. Because the building was over 30 years old (much like the Winecoff/Ellis building), it was not required to have a sprinkler system. It was equipped with fire alarms, but guests who escaped reported that the alarms could barely be heard from inside the rooms. Only one guest died in the blaze, not a number comparable with the Winecoff, but still a needless death accompanied by 20 injuries. Like the Winecoff, the Atlanta Holiday Inn has also been restored now, reopened as a Home 2 Suites in September of 2019.
Fire Safety Regulations Work, When Enforced
When the system works as it should, hotels that put guests at risk of fire are stopped before those risks become realities. This happened in Adairsville in September of 2019, when the local fire marshal shut down the Magnuson Countryside Inn. The inn’s long laundry list of code violations included an out-of-service fire alarm system, with alarm units completely missing from most rooms, as well as doors that were not self-closing and could not withstand the legal minimum of one hour of fire exposure.
Other times, hotels do catch fire, but their precautions allow them to minimize and localize the damage. For example, in Valdosta in 2019, a fire started in a hotel kitchen. It was apparently the result of unattended cooking — a definite lapse in fire safety protocol — but, because the hotel was equipped with a working sprinkler system, the flames were already extinguished when firefighters arrived, and no one was hurt.
Three months later, the Econo Lodge in Garden City caught fire, but the blaze was contained to a single room, something that would have been all but impossible if the Econo Lodge had been using doors not designed for fire safety, like those in the Magnuson Countryside Inn. All guests were still displaced because of the smoke in the air, but again, no one was hurt and little was damaged.
Hotels in Georgia Are Still Not Doing Enough to Protect Guests from Fire
Some Georgia hotels have failed badly at protecting their guests, allowing fires to get out of hand and offering little or no help once they have.
As recently as January of 2020, the Underwood Lodge in Dalton caught fire. All 38 occupants managed to get out uninjured, and a subsequent investigation found the lodge’s fire alarms to be functional, but those who escaped say those alarms never went off, and neither did the lodge’s sprinkler system. They credit their escape to other guests pounding on the walls and doors to warn each other, a heroic gesture that ought to have been unnecessary. The Underwood Lodge is an extended stay hotel, so it’s likely that the delayed fire response cost the guests even more in terms of personal possessions than a similar fire would have in a more traditional hotel.
That’s not to say that short-term hotel guests can’t have plenty to lose as well, of course. Seven months earlier, a fire at the Microtel Inn and Suites in Glynn County also forced guests to run for their lives without warning, leaving their valuables behind. One guest who escaped says that she didn’t know about the fire until her niece smelled smoke coming from the hallway outside their room. Once she’d opened the door to that hallway, in order to gather her sons from another nearby room, the smoke became unbearable, and the family had to leave with nothing but her husband’s wallet and keys.
An alarm might have given that guest the chance to evacuate her family sooner, more safely, and in a more organized manner. She says, by the time they got out, no alarm had yet sounded, and the sprinklers had not activated. She also estimates that they lost about $9,000 in property, including her wedding ring, plus the cost of two additional nights for which they had already paid. She says the Microtel Inn and Suites has refused to refund or reimburse her for any of it, on the grounds that the fire had started with a guest’s cigarette and was therefore not their problem.
Other families told similar stories of luck, unassisted escapes, and a refusal on the Microtel Inn and Suite’s part to acknowledge its responsibility or communicate appropriately with its displaced guests.
Hotel Fires Cause Devastating Injuries and Can Turn Deadly Fast
Amid stories of escape and material loss, it’s easy to forget just how lethal structure fires are. According to a survey by the National Fire Protection Association, about 3,173 people die in fires in the U.S every year, 135 of them in Georgia. Adjusted for population, Georgia the fifth most dangerous state in the country for fire deaths, and old buildings poorly regulated for fire safety are a contributing factor.
Once a fire starts, there’s a brief window of time in which inhabitants have a good chance of making it out unhurt. If they’re not warned fast enough, or if they don’t have a clear path to the exit and know where it is, that chance rapidly drops as the fire grows. Once firefighters arrive on the scene, they check as many rooms as possible for people still in need of rescue, but if the structure is too unstable or too hot, they’ll have to skip this step or cut in short, focusing on extinguishing the flames from the outside. Hotels, with their many individual rooms, and particularly high-rise hotels that may be taller than a fire engine’s ladder, can’t always be searched thoroughly. That’s all the more reason hotel fires should be avoided or quickly contained whenever possible, and guests should be provided with clear escape routes and timely warnings.
If guests miss their opportunity to evacuate, even if they’re not in the immediate path of the flames, they’re soon subjected to smoke inhalation, poisonous carbon monoxide buildup, and rapidly rising air temperatures. A fully developed structure fire can cause death by lung damage with a single breath of interior air. According to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), those air temperatures can reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Understandably enough, most injuries incurred in residential fires (including hotel fires) are heat- or inhalation-related, but 22% take a different form. Broken bones and lacerations are common, as a result of breaking windows, jumping from heights, or tripping and falling in the low visibility caused by smoke.
Even if a guest makes it outside after the fire has had time to grow, the worst isn’t necessarily over. Burns that are too deep or cover too much of the body can lead to serious, life-threating complications later in treatment. Survivors of carbon monoxide poisoning can also face lifelong and life-changing effects, including debilitating brain injuries.
Hotel Owners Have a Responsibility to Keep People Safe from Fire
All property owners have a general responsibility to protect employees and guests from foreseeable dangers. When it comes to hotels and fires, there are also some very specific regulations owners must adhere to, laid out in the International Fire Code and modified by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
The code is intensively detailed, but some of its simplest prescribed fire precautions include:
- Enough uninterrupted exit routes to serve the maximum number of occupants in an emergency
- Diagrams of the exit route near each guestroom door
- An independent power supply to keep exit routes well-lit
- Working smoke alarms in every guestroom
- Readily available fire extinguishers
Other regulations, concerning the strength of building materials, are harder for guests to assess but just as important for hotel owners to observe.
If a hotel owner fails to take all reasonable steps to prevent fires from starting, spreading, and harming guests, that owner is morally and financially responsible for the outcome of that failure.
What to Do If Your Hotel Catches Fire
If you see fire, smell smoke, or hear a fire alarm, the first thing to do is gather your loved ones and exit the building, alerting others along the way if necessary and possible. You can also bring any possessions that are close at hand and won’t slow you down, but don’t take too long or venture into less safe parts of the hotel for the sake of inanimate objects. If a member of your party is unaccounted for or can’t be moved, go outside and notify the responding firefighters as soon as possible. Staying inside only gives the firefighters one more person to rescue, making it more difficult to get everyone out and the fire under control.
After reaching a safe distance, you’ll need to be examined right away by a medical professional. Emergency first-responders will usually provide examinations to survivors on site and transport those who need it to a local hospital for additional care.
If you’ve been injured in a hotel fire, or if a member of your family didn’t make it out, you’ll also need to reach out to qualified legal counsel, like the experts at The Stoddard Firm. We specialize in holding irresponsible companies accountable for the harm they’ve caused, and we can help you get the compensation you need. To get started with a free consultation, call us at 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function.