Lessons from the Past: Learning Fire Prevention Basics from the MGM Grand Fire

Lessons from the Past
Learning Fire Prevention Basics from the MGM Grand Fire

By Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, EFO, CFO, MIFireE

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in
IAFC On Scene, October 1, 2010. Republished with permission from the IAFC.

November 21 marks the 30th anniversary of the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas. Learning from the past can be a guiding light; looking at this fire provides valuable lessons that may prevent similar tragedies in the future.


FireRescue Magazine Editor-in-Chief Timothy Sendelbach shares his thoughts on the MGM Grand disaster: It Didn't Have to Happen.

The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino Fire occurred in Las Vegas on Nov. 21, 1980. The NFPA’s investigation later concluded, “With sprinklers, it would have been a one- or two-sprinkler fire, and we would never have heard about it.” (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

A U.S Air Force helicopter lifts a MGM Grand Hotel and Casino guest to safety as a fire swept through the lower portion of the hotel and casino, causing hundreds of hotel guests to be trapped on the upper floors in Las Vegas on Nov. 21, 1980. Helicopters were the only way to rescue the guests. (AP Photo/Richard Diaz, U.S. Air Force)

Firefighters look through the remains of the MGM Grand hotel-casino. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Sun)

Timeline of the Morning’s Events
· 7:05: MGM employee noticed fire and notified security
· 7:17: CCFD received a call reporting the fire
· 7:19: First fire engine arrived on scene
· 7:22: A third alarm was called
· 7:25: The entire casino restaurant on the east side and porte-cochere on the west side of the building are fully involved in the fire
· 7:30: Metro Police helicopter requested all available helicopters to the scene
· 7:50: The fire was controlled on the east sector
· 8:30: The main casino fire was under control.

The Scenario
The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino opened in December 1973 with about 2 million square feet. Fire-sprinkler systems weren’t installed in the hotel, and fire-sprinkler protection was provided for only limited areas on the ground level.

According to local newspapers of the time, despite pressure from the fire marshal during construction and after completion, the owners fought installing sprinklers. MGM received a recommendation letter from one of their own consultants that indicated, “the liability of all the unsprinklered areas in this building should be a concern to your corporation.” Despite this, MGM decided against installing sprinklers.

Total construction cost of the hotel was $106 million; the cost of sprinkler installation was only around $192,000. The owners sought relief from the Clark County Building Department, and the building director rendered a decision that the fire-sprinkler requirements in the codes didn’t apply to the hotel and casino. The fire marshal insisted sprinklers should be installed throughout the building, but building officials ruled they didn’t have to install them.

The Fire
At the time, about 5,000 people were in the hotel. Some exited the building without help; many were rescued by the firefighters and many construction workers and a passerby also helped. More than 300 people were evacuated from the rooftop by helicopters. The total evacuation of the building took nearly four hours.

The fire killed 85 people and sent 650 to the hospital, including guests, employees and 14 firefighters. While the fire primarily damaged the second-floor casino and adjacent restaurants, most of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation on the upper floors of the hotel. Impaired smoke dampers and other HVAC components and openings in the vertical shafts, stairways, elevator hoistways and seismic joints allowed toxic smoke to spread throughout the building all the way to the top floor.

The MGM Grand disaster wasn’t a fire-suppression failure. Firefighters did all they could to react to a flashover scenario in a mega-resort. They were successful in their efforts, contained the fire to the floor of origin and knocked it down in about 90 minutes.

The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical ground fault inside the wall of a restaurant. In the casino area, the presence of combustible furnishing and interior finishes, foam padding and moldings, air supply and a very large undivided area allowed for an extremely rapid fire spread and heavy smoke production.

Newspaper articles indicated 83 building-code violations, design flaws, installation errors and materials contributed to the magnitude of the fire and smoke spread.

The Investigation
NFPA’s 1981 investigation report on the MGM Grand Hotel Fire stated, “The County Office of Building and Safety had primary responsibility for code enforcement during the construction phase of projects. The Fire Department did not have any building code enforcing authority. Reportedly, a system of on-site resident inspectors was used for the code enforcement procedure during the building process. These inspectors were hired by the Clark county Office of Building and Safety which in turn was reimbursed by the Hotel.”

The NFPA’s investigation concluded, “with sprinklers, it would have been a one- or two-sprinkler fire, and we would never have heard about it.”

The Cost
There were 1,327 lawsuits against 118 companies; money from all the companies went into a $223 million settlement fund, including $105 million from MGM.
To get the full economical impact, include the estimated $300 million reconstruction cost and hundreds of millions of dollars of business interruptions. Add the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenues from gaming and tourism that all the businesses in the Southern Nevada community endured for many years after.

Billions of dollars lost as a direct result of a decision to save $192,000 by not installing fire-sprinkler protection throughout the building.

The Response
Elected officials and public administrators in Nevada recognized that economic fact. Realizing the risks and probabilities, they decided not to gamble on the possibilities of such tragic events in the future. Not more than three months after the fire, the state’s building and fire codes were revised to have the most stringent fire-sprinkler and life-safety requirements in the country. All hotels taller than 55 feet were required to be retrofitted with fire-sprinkler systems, and all future buildings three or more stories high were required to be sprinklered.

It was clear the catastrophe was a major failure in plan review and construction-code enforcement. The many design flaws and code violations that contributed to the fire’s magnitude were obvious results of the building department’s unilateral review and approval system, which didn’t allow the fire marshal any involvement during design review or in construction.

And Today?
Thirty years later, the Charles County and Las Vegas Fire Department have both obtained the ISO Class 1 rating and CFAI accreditation—Las Vegas is known as the most fire-safe tourist destination in the U.S. and one of the most fire-safe cities in the world. Fire calls are less than 4% of the annual call volume.

But even with all our resources, expertise and experience, if we had to fight a similar fire in the same building with all those construction deficiencies and without fire-sprinkler systems, the results would not be much different and dozens of victims could be expected.

Of course, there’ve been fires in hotels since the MGM Grand fire—hundreds of them. But due to the built-in fire protection systems and stringent fire-code enforcement activities, the fires were contained and extinguished and responding crews minimized property losses—and we haven’t had any fire fatalities in the high-rises.

Lessons Learned
So what can fire service leaders learn from this fire 30 years ago?

First, remember the importance of fire-prevention duties. Fire prevention is an important priority and instrumental in protecting our communities. It provides not only for the safety of our citizens, but also our own firefighters, making sure they go home safe to their loved ones at the end of each shift.

Second, the fire-prevention division must be an integral part of the fire department and be proactively involved in the planning, development, design review and inspection phases for all new projects. Design omissions, non-code compliance conditions and other installation defects during the construction of the buildings can have devastating effects on the outcome of an incident.

The passage of time erases memories and complacency sets in. The probability of having a similar catastrophic fire might be small, but the consequences of such a fire are devastating. Fire-prevention programs help us lower the probabilities of such events occurring and drastically decrease the magnitude of the consequences. Fire prevention must be viewed as an integral part and a significant function of all fire departments. It must become a much higher priority in the fire service.

Plan-review and fire-prevention programs often bear the brunt of budget cuts. While the MGM Grand fire underlined the importance of fire prevention and we have made great strides since then toward safer communities, such staff reductions could set us back decades. Why should we expect different results next time if we allow fire-prevention programs to be drastically reduced and our role in plan review and fire inspection eliminated?

We must remember what philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, is a fire protection engineer for Las Vegas Fire Rescue. He’s a former member of the IAFC’s Fire & Life Safety Section board.

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