MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A fast-moving fire that killed four college students in a suburban Birmingham motel illustrates a deadly problem facing travelers around the country: Many older hotels and motels can legally avoid installing sprinklers that stop blazes before they kill guests.
Since a catastrophic fire killed 87 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in 1980, a national push to require sprinkler systems in new hotels and motels has helped bring fire deaths down significantly.
Yet federal officials say an estimated 3,900 hotel and motel fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year, causing on average 15 deaths, 150 injuries and $76 million in property loss. The National Fire Protection Association says it's rare for a guest to die when a fire breaks out in a room with sprinklers, and that there hasn't been a documented fire in a sprinklered hotel that killed more than one person.
"It's much safer to stay in a sprinklered facility. It's unfortunate most travelers don't give that a thought," said Robert Duval, senior fire investigator with the NFPA.
While newer hotels must install sprinklers, older ones do not, and they take in travelers around the country. A study by the U.S. Fire Administration for 2005-2007 found that about 60 percent of hotels and motels reporting fires lacked sprinklers.
The National Fire Protection Association also found every single fire death from 2002 to 2005 was in a motel or hotel that lacked a sprinkler system. More recent statistics weren't available.
If the Birmingham-area hotel had sprinklers, Duval said, the fire "would have been a non-event. Everybody would have gotten to go home."
The Days Inn Motel in Hoover, a wooden structure built in 1964 to resemble an old South plantation, wasn't required to have sprinklers. State Fire Marshall Ed Paulk said four college students from Mississippi who died in the Jan. 19 fire would still be alive if the motel had been equipped with sprinklers.
"That would have prevented the loss of life," Paulk said.
Safety advocates and industry officials say travelers often aren't aware of whether their hotel has sprinklers. The president of the Greater Birmingham Lodging Association, Mairs Baxter, said it is "very rare" for customers to ask.
"The only ones I've noticed that do that are representatives of government associations," said Baxter, who is also general manager of a Birmingham-area LaQuinta Inn.
Anecdotally, the presence of sprinklers doesn't appear to be something the older and less-expensive places advertise. In a spot check of older and cheaper hotels and motels, a reporter saw that their websites generally note amenities such as Internet access and cable TV, but not sprinklers, even if they have them. In phone interviews, fire safety equipment wasn't mentioned by clerks, unless asked. The check included about 20 hotels in nine states.
Federal government employees are required to stay in hotels with sprinkler systems on business trips. FEMA provides an Internet search engine – – of approved accommodations. http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/hotel
Steve Muncy, a spokesman for the American Fire Sprinkler Association, said many older hotels do not install sprinkler systems because of the cost.
"It's not cheap," said Muncy, whose trade group represents sprinkler installers and manufacturers. "The older the building, the more expensive it is. The cost varies depending on the size and age of the building. Obviously it's cheaper in a one- or two- story motel than in a high rise."
Nationally, sprinkler systems are required by local ordinances and building codes in most hotels built or remodeled within the last 10 years, but those laws generally don't apply to older facilities. It's also hard to track where sprinklers are required, partly because sprinkler regulations are often in local ordinances and not state laws.
In Alabama, all motel and hotel rooms must have smoke detectors, but sprinkler requirements vary by city.
They were not required at the Days Inn in Hoover, where the Mississippi University for Women students checked in for a day of shopping.
The four – 18-year-old cousins Alondan "Angel" Turner and Catherine Ann Muse of Cordova, Ala.; Jamelia Brown, 18, of Grenada, Miss.; and Joslynn McGee, 19, of Corinth, Miss. – were staying in a room upstairs and a few doors down from the room where a maintenance worker, Dhirajlal Bhagat, 55, had been burning incense in a makeshift Hindu shrine. The fire began after he left the room.
Without sprinklers, there was nothing to slow the fire as it spread up the outside walls. The two-story building had firewalls, but Paulk said those were mostly ineffective since the fire spread on the outside.
The blaze blocked firefighters from reaching the women, who sought shelter in a bathroom.
There was a far different outcome on Nov. 8 at a Clarion Suites Hotel in Yuma, Ariz., where an occupant started a fire while using an appliance to heat cups of liquid. After the person left the room, the device overheated, catching the surrounding counter and wallboard on fire, said Yuma fire spokesman Mike Erfert. But a sprinkler head kept the fire from spreading to other rooms.
The MGM Grand fire on Nov. 21, 1980, that killed 87 is the second-worst hotel fire in modern U.S. history. It prompted the adoption of strict fire codes in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
There has not been a fatal high rise hotel fire in Las Vegas in at least 15 years, partly because of ordinances adopted by the city following the MGM fire, including one requiring sprinklers in all high-rise hotels, said Tim Szymanski, public information officer for Las Vegas Fire and Rescue.
Most times, high-rise hotel fires are confined because of sprinklers by the time fire fighters arrive.
"They are worth their weight in gold, Szymanski said.