Go Back  FlyerTalk Forums > Travel&Dining > TravelBuzz
Reload this Page >

How to Survive a Hotel Fire.

How to Survive a Hotel Fire.

Old Feb 6, 01, 4:18 pm
Original Poster
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: Winnipeg Canada, Cambridge England. CP - EP (R.I.P.) formerly AC-SE now lower than the lowest low.
Posts: 828
How to Survive a Hotel Fire.

I found this, its well worth reading, some really usefull advice that hopefully none of us will need.




by Captain RH Kauffman, Los Angeles County Fire Department

To all my friends who travel, please read this and be safe.

Have you ever been in a hotel during a fire? It's a frightening experience, and you should start thinking about it. For instance, how would you have acted if you had been in one of these fires?

The Thomas Hotel, San Francisco, Ca 20 DEAD
The Gulf Hotel, Houston, Texas 54 DEAD
The La Salle Hotel, Chicago, Ill 61 DEAD
The Wincoff Hotel, Atlanta, Ca 119 DEAD
Of course, there have been hundreds more with thousands of deaths, but I think you're getting the drift. The majority of those people did not have to die.

My wife has been in the airline industry for close to 8 years and while accompanying her on a trip recently, I learned how ill-prepared she was for a hotel fire. It's not her fault: it's quite common. Hotels, however, have no excuse for being ill-prepared, but believe me, you cannot depend on the staff in case of a fire. History has shown that some hotels won't even call the Fire Department. I have been a fire-fighter in Los Angeles for over 10 years and have seen many people die needlessly in building fires. It's sad because most could have saved themselves.

What you're about to read is roughly the same briefing I have given my wife on hotel safety. I do not intend to play down the aspects of hotel fires or soft soap the language. It's critical that you remember how to react, and, if I shake you a little, maybe you will.

Contrary to what you have seen on television or in the movies, fire is not likely to chase you down and burn you to death. It's the bi-products of fire that will kill you. Super heated fire gases (smoke) and panic will almost always be the cause of death long before the fire arrives if it ever does. This is very important. You must know how to avoid smoke and panic to survive a hotel fire. With this in mind, here are a few tips:

Where there is smoke, there is not necessarily fire. A smoldering mattress, for instance, will produce great amounts of smoke. Air conditioning and air exchange systems will sometimes pick up smoke from one room and carry it out to other rooms or floors. You should keep that in mind because 70% of the hotel fires are caused by smoking and matches. In any case, your prime objective should be to leave at the first sign of smoke.

Smoke, being warmer, will start accumulating at the ceiling and work its way down. The first thing you will notice is THERE ARE NO EXIT SIGNS. I'll talk more about the exits later, just keep in mind when you have smoke, it's too late to start looking for Exit signs.

Another thing about smoke you should be aware of is how irritating it is on the eyes. The problem is that your eyes will only take so much irritation, then they close. Try all you want, you won't be able to open them if there is still smoke in the area. It's one of your body's compensatory mechanisms. Lastly, the fresh air you want to breath is at or near the floor. Get on your hands and knees (or stomach) and STAY THERE as you make you way out. Those who don't probably won't get far.

Think about this poor man's predicament for a moment:

He wakes up at 0230 hours to a smell of smoke. He puts on his trousers and runs into the hallway only to be greeted by heavy smoke. He has no idea where the exit is. He runs to the right. He's coughing and gagging, his eyes hurt. Where is it??? WHERE IS IT?? Panic begins to set in. About the same time he thinks maybe he is going the wrong way, his eyes close. He can't find his way back to his room (it wasn't so bad in there). His chest hurts, he desperately needs oxygen. Total panic sets in as he runs in the other direction. He is completely disorientated. He cannot hold his breath any longer. We find him at 0250. DEAD
What caused all the smoke? A small fire in a room where they store the roll-away beds. Remember, the presence of smoke does not necessarily mean the hotel is burning down.

Panic (pan ik). A sudden, overpowering terror often afflicting many people at once. Panic is the product of your imagination running wild and it will set in as soon as it dawns on you that you're lost, disorientated, or you don't know what to do. Panic is almost irreversible: once it sets in, it seems to grow. Panic will make you do things that could kill you. People in a state of panic are rarely able to save themselves.

If you understand what;s going on, what to do, where to go, and how to get there, panic will not set in. The man in the example I used would not have died if he had known what to do. For instance, had he known the exit was to the left and 4 doors down on the left, he could have gotten on his hands and knees where there was fresh air and started counting doorways. Even if he couldn't keep his eyes open, he could feel his way as he crawled, counting the doors. 1... 2... 3... BINGO! He would NOT have panicked. He would be alive today, telling of his great hotel fire experience.

The elevator drops you at the 12th floor and you start looking for your room. Let's see ... room 1236 ... here it is. You open the door and drop your luggage. AT THAT VERY MOMENT, turn around and go back into the hallway to check your Exit. You may NEVER get another chance. Don't go into the bathroom, open the curtains, turn on the TV, smarten your appearance, or crash out on the bed. I know you're tired and you want to relax, but it's absolutely essential ... no ... CRITICAL that you develop the HABIT of checking for your exit after you drop your luggage. It won't take 30 seconds, and believe me, you may NEVER get another chance.

If there are 2 of you sharing a room, BOTH of you locate your Exit. Talk it over as you walk towards it. Is it on the left or right ... do you have to turn a corner? Open the Exit door ... what do you see ... stairs or another door? (Sometimes there are 2 doors to go through, especially in newer hotels. ) I'd hate to see you crawl into a broom closet thinking it was the Exit! Are you passing any rooms where your friends are staying? If there was a fire, you may want to bang on their doors as you go by. Is there anything in the hallway that would be in your way ... an ice-machine maybe? As you arrive back at your room, take a look once more. Get a good mental picture of what everything looks like. Do you think you could get to the Exit with a blindfold on?

This procedure takes less than one minute and to be effective, it must become a habit. Those of you who are too lazy or tired to do it consistently are real riverboat gamblers. There are over 5,000 hotel fires per year. The odds are sure to catch up with you.

Should you have to leave your room during the night, it is important to close the door behind you. This is very effective in keeping out fire and will minimize smoke damage to you belongings.

There was a house fire in Los Angeles recently where an entire family died. It was a 3 bedroom house with a den and family room. That night, the occupants had left every door in the house open except one, and it had led to the washrooms where the family dog slept. The house, except for the washroom, was a total loss. When the fire was knocked down, firemen opened the door to find the family dog wagging his tail. Because the door was left shut, the dog and room were in fine shape.

Some doors take hours to burn through. They are excellent fire stops so close every door you go through. If you find smoke in the Exit stairwell, you can bet people are leaving the doors open as they enter.

Always take your key with you. Get into the habit of putting the key in the same place every time you stay in a hotel. Since every hotel has night stands, that's an excellent location. It's close to the bed so you can grab it when you leave without wasting time looking for it. It's important you close your door as you leave, and it's equally as important that you don't lock yourself out. You may find conditions in the hallway untenable, and want to return to your room. If you're now in the habit of checking your exit and leaving the room key on the night stand, you're pretty well prepared to leave the hotel in case of a fire, so let's walk through it once.

Something will awaken you during the night. It could be the telephone, someone banging on the door, the smell of smoke, or some other disturbance. But, whatever it is, investigate it before you go back to sleep. A popular inn near LAX recently had a fire and one of the guests later said he was awakened by people screaming but went back to bed thinking it was a party. He ****ed near died in bed.

Let's suppose you wake up to smoke in your room. Grab you key off the night stand, roll off the bed and head for the door on you hands and knees. Even if you could tolerate the smoke by standing, DON'T. You'll want to save your eyes and lungs for as long as possible. BEFORE you open the door, feel it with the palm of your hand.
Edited to include comments by Baze.
Baze notes: Use the back of your hand to test the temperature of any doors, and not the palm, as that way you can still use your hands even if you get burnt. See Baze's post below.
If the door or knob is quite hot, don't open it. The fire could be just outside. We'll talk about that later. With the palm of your hand still on the door (in case you need to slam it shut), slowly open the door and peek into the hallway to assess conditions.

As you make your way to the Exit, stay against the wall on the side where the Exit is. It is very easy to get lost or disorientated in a smoky atmosphere. If you're on the wrong side of the hallway, you might crawl right on by the Exit. If you're in the middle of the hall, people who are running will trip over you. Stay on the same side as the Exit, count doors as you go.

When you reach the Exit and begin to descend, it is very important that you WALK down and hang onto the handrail as you go. Don't take this point lightly. The people who will be running will knock you down and you might not be able to get up. Just hang on and stay out of everyone's way. All you have to do now is leave the building, cross the street and watch the action. When the fire is out and the smoke clears, you will be allowed to re-enter the building. If you closed your room door when you left, your belongings should be in pretty good shape. Smoke will sometimes get into the Exit stairway. If it's a tall building, this smoke may not rise very high before it cools and becomes heavy. This is called "stacking". If your room is on the 20th floor, for instance, you could enter the stairway and find it clear. As you descend you could encounter smoke that has "stacked". Do not try to run through it - people die that way. Turn around and walk up. Now you must really hang onto the handrail. The people running down will probably be glassy-eyed and in a panic and will knock you right out of your socks!

Edited to include comments by dcpremex:

dcpremex who was a firefighter says that you should not leave any doors open, even the one at the top of the building due to modern construction that allows for the smoke.
See his post below


They will run over anything in their way, including a fireman. You'll feel as though you're going upstream against the Chicago Bears, but hang on and keep heading up towards the roof. If for some reason you try one of the doors to an upper floor and find it locked, that's normal, don't worry about it. Exit stairwells are designed so that you cannot enter from the street or roof. Once inside, however, you may Exit at the street or roof but cannot go from floor to floor; this is done for security purposes. When you reach the roof, prop the door with something.
See Comment above ----------
This is the ONLY time you will leave a door open. Any smoke in the stairwell may now vent itself to the atmosphere and you won't be locked out. Now find the windward side of the building (the wet finger method is quite reliable), have a seat and wait until they find you. Roofs have proved to be a safe secondary exit and refuge area. Stay put. Firemen will always make a thorough search of the building looking for bodies. Live ones are nice to find.

After you check your Exit and drop the key on the night stand, there is one more thing for you to do. Become familiar with your room. See if your bathroom has a vent; all do, but some have electric motors. Should you decide to remain in your room, turn it on to help remove the smoke. Take a good look at the window in your room. Does it open? Does it have a latch, a lock? Does it slide? Now open the window (if it works) and look outside. What do you see? A sign, ledges? How high up are you? Get a good mental picture of what's outside, it may come in handy. It's important you know how to OPEN your window, you may have to close it again.

Should you wake up to smoke in your room and the door is too hot to open or the hallway is completely charged with smoke, don't panic. Many people have defended themselves quite nicely in their room and so can you. One of the first things you'll want to do is open the window to vent the smoke. I hope you learned how to open it when you checked in. It could be dark and smoking in the room. Those who don't will probably throw a chair through the window. If there is smoke outside and you have no window to close, it will enter your room and you will be trapped. The broken glass from the window will cut like a surgeon's scalpel. At the Ramada Inn fire, an airline captain on a layover threw a chair through the window and cut himself seriously. Don't compound your problems. Besides, if you break out your window with a chair, you could hit a fireman on the street below.

If there is fresh air outside, leave the window open, but keep an eye on it. At this point, most people would stay at the window, waving frantically, while their room continues to fill with smoke, if the fire burns through. This procedure is not conducive to longevity. You must be aggressive and fight back. Here are some things you can do in any order you choose ... if the room phone works, let someone know you're in there. Flip on the bathroom vent. Fill the bath with water. (Don't get into it - it's for fire fighting. You'd be surprised how many people try to save themselves by getting into a tub of water - that's how you cook lobsters and crabs, so you know what happens!) Wet some sheets or towels, and stuff the cracks of your door to keep out the smoke. With your ice-bucket, bail the water from the bath onto the door to keep it cool. Feel the walls - if they are hot, bail water onto them too. You can put your mattress up against the door and block it in place with the dresser. Keep it wet - keep everything wet. Who cares about the mess. A wet towel tied around your nose and mouth is an effective filter if your fold it in a triangle and put the corner in your mouth. If you swing a wet towel around the room, it will help clear the smoke. If there is a fire outside the window, pull down the curtains and move everything combustible away from the window. Bail water all around the window. Use your imagination and you may come up with some tricks of you own. The point is, there shouldn't be any reason to panic - keep fighting until reinforcements arrive. It won't be long.

There isn't an elevator made that can be used as a "safe" exit. In all states, elevators by law, cannot be considered an Exit. They are complicated devices with a mind of their own. The problem is people only know one way out of a building - the way they came in, and if that was the elevator, they are in trouble. Elevator shafts and machinery extends through all floors of a building, and besides, with the shaft filling with smoke, there are hundreds of other things that could go wrong and probably will. Everyone tries to get on the elevator in an emergency. Fights break out and people get seriously injured. Smoke, heat and fire do funny things to elevator call buttons, controls and other complicated parts.

Case in point:

Hotel guests in a New Orleans hotel were called on their room phones and notified of a fire on the upper floors. They were in no danger, but asked to evacuate the hotel as a precaution. Five of the guests decided to use the elevator. It was discovered later that the elevator only went down about three floors and then for some reason started going up. It did not stop until it reached the fire floor. The doors came open and were held open by smoke obscuring the photo cell light beam. Besides the five guests in the elevator who died of suffocation, firemen noticed that every button had been pushed, probably in a frantic attempt to stop the elevator.
Fires have killed many people, including firemen. Several New York firemen recently used an elevator when responding to a fire up on the 20th floor. They pushed 18, but the elevator went right on by the 18th floor. The doors came open on the 20th floor to an inferno and remained open long enough to kill all the firemen. The doors then closed and the elevator returned to the lobby. Hand operated elevators are not exempt. Some elevator operators have been beaten by people fighting over the controls. If you have any idea that there might be smoke or fire in your hotel, avoid the elevator like the plague.

It's important I say something about jumping because so many people do it. Most are killed or injured in the process. I cannot tell you whether or not you should jump. Every fire, although similar, is different. I can tell you, however, what usually happens to "jumpers".

If you're on the 1st floor, you could just OPEN the window and climb out. From the second floor you could probably make it with a sprained ankle, but you must jump out far enough to clear the building. Many people hit window sills and ledges on the way down, and they go into cartwheels. If they don't land on their head and kill themselves, they're injured seriously. If you're any higher than the 3rd, the chances are you won't survive the fall. You would probably be better off fighting the fire. Nearby buildings seem closer than they really are and many have died trying to jump to a building that looked 5 feet away, but was actually 15 feet away.

Panic is what causes most people to jump. There was a fire in Brazil a few years ago where 40 people jumped from windows and all 40 died. Ironically, 36 of those jumped after the fire was out. Many people have survived by staying put whilst those around them jumped to their death. If you can resist panic and think clearly, you can use your own best judgment.

Believe it or not, most hotels will not call the Fire Department until they verify whether or not there really is a fire and try to put it out themselves. Should you call the reception to report a fire, they will always send the bellhop, security guard, or anyone else that's not busy to investigate. Hotels are very reluctant to "disturb" their guests and fire engines in the streets are quite embarrassing and tend to draw crowds.

In the New Orleans hotel fire, records show that the Fire Department received only one call, from a guest in one of the rooms. The desk had been notified of fire 20 minutes earlier and had sent a security guard to investigate. His body was later found on the 12th floor about 10 feet from the elevator.

Should you want to report a fire or smell of smoke, ask the hotel operator for an outside line for a local call. Call the Fire Department and tell them your room number in case you need to be rescued. You need not feel embarrassed, that's what we're here for. We would much rather come to a small fire or smoking electrical problem that you smelled than be called 20 minutes later after 6 people have died. Don't let hotel "policy" intimidate you into doing otherwise. The hotel may be a little upset with you, but really ... who gives a ****. The Fire Department will be glad you called: you may have saved many lives. Besides, it's a great way for us to meet people!

Well, the rest is up to you. Only you can condition yourself to react in a hotel emergency. You can be well prepared by developing the habits we've talked about.

[This message has been edited by SCMM (edited 02-08-2001).]
Musken, fairhsa, Catweazle and 6 others like this.
SCMM is offline  
Old Feb 6, 01, 5:12 pm
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Dallas, TX USA
Posts: 1,966
As a survivor of a highrise hotel fire (Westchase Hilton, Houston, March 6, 1982, 13 dead), I NEVER accept a room above the fourth floor.
I can also attest to the accuracy of the statement above that the hotel will delay as long as possible in calling the fire department, so if you are sure that there is a fire, pick up the phone and call the fire department yourself.
I urge everybody to read this thoroughly and follow the precautions, because it could save your life one day. I found out the hard way that it CAN happen to you.
jerseytom likes this.
dogcanyon is offline  
Old Feb 6, 01, 6:54 pm
Original Member
Join Date: May 1998
Location: Chicago, IL (2 miles from ORD)
Posts: 660
SCMM, I had a vertical fall of 45ft (4 floors) and was able to walk away! Lucky for me that I landed on my feet, although the impact caused my ankles to swell.

Fire safety: A smoke helmet is one of the best things to have with you. A smoke helmet is a fire-resistant hood that will also trap enough air to give you a few moments of oxygen. I believe that smoke helmets are less than $20.
Aubie is offline  
Old Feb 6, 01, 9:07 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Join Date: Sep 2000
Programs: UA Million Miler (lite). NY Metro area.
Posts: 14,922
I usually don't read long posts but I'm glad I read this one.

This was the most valuable post I ever read here on flyertalk. I'm printing it out.

You may have saved one of us.

momoflyingguy likes this.
dhammer53 is offline  
Old Feb 6, 01, 10:12 pm
Used to be MBS PremExec
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: Saginaw, MI (MBS)
Programs: UA 1K 1.9MM, Marriott Titanium w/Lifetime Plat, Hilton LIfetime ♢, National Exec, Amex Plat
Posts: 5,704
SCMM, Thanks for the post. It's something I've really never thought too much about...But guarantee I will now. I just hope that I (or anyone else for that matter) never have to use the information.

Something was mentioned above about those disposable masks...I spend some time every year in China...Every hotel I've stayed in has those masks in the closet. They are a one-time use thing in a can that you open.

I don't know if it's required in China hotels or not, but I find it odd to see so many in various hotels in China (many hotel chains and even independents), but never recall seeing one in the US. I thought the US was the king of safety regulations. (Can't believe I'm saying this)--I think regulators should take a lesson from China in this case.
MBS MillionMiler is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 7:10 am
Join Date: Oct 1999
Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 452
I printed this out and have given it to the entire family to read. My dad was an architect with a particular interest in fire safety and so I grew up doing some of the things that are mentioned in the article, but this is way more comprehensive. On another note, in our children's school fire safety is taught early and my kids are religous about making sure all the doors are shut at night.
I would agree, this is one of the most important things I've read on FT, thanks!
vindesante is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 9:08 am
Join Date: May 1999
Location: New York,NY USA
Posts: 1,471
Great post! I was in a hotel fire in Hong Kong in November. I wish I had read this first.

speedbird001 is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 9:10 am
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Charlottesville, VA, USA and Porto, Portugal
Posts: 284
Another thank you, SCMM, for that post. And another tip: carry a flashlight/torch with you. I have a small one that is always in my hand luggage. It may not help you see through smoke but it will, for example, enable you to see a diagram showing exit routes at night if the mains electricity is out.
Pete is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 10:28 am
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Join Date: Jul 1999
Location: Ewa Beach, Hawaii
Posts: 10,774
Great article. I would only make one suggestion. In the article it states to use the palm of your hand to feel the door. In my fire fighting training in the Navy they said to never use the palm of your hand. If you burn it you won't be able to grab things such as door handles to open them. Always use the back of your hand. That way you won't lose the use of your hand if it gets burned.
Baze is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 4:05 pm
Original Member
Join Date: May 1998
Location: Escondido CA USA
Programs: AS, UA, HY, Hil, Merr
Posts: 3,187
My experience (one plane evacuation fire, one hotel false alarm..46 floors of evacuation, and one apartment fire that totalled several apartments) is keep your shoes next to the bed and your pants w/key and wallet Broken glass and buring material can prevent progress in evacuation if your barefoot. Life is easier with ID, medical card and a few bucks to get some clothes. In the apartment fire windows were blowing out all over from the heat. We took a heavy blanket and went thru that with shoe on and little else. No everyone live thru it. early '60s in the Hollywood, Ca. area.
ranles is offline  
Old Feb 7, 01, 8:27 pm
Join Date: Apr 2000
Location: HKG/SFO
Programs: CX GR; AA Life GLD, EXP; SPG Life GLD, PLT
Posts: 1,049
Great post!
HK-UMICH is offline  
Old Feb 8, 01, 8:08 am
Join Date: May 2000
Location: Near Tysons Corner, VA (USA)
Posts: 785
As a former firefighter - do NOT prop open any door (including at the top). Most fire stairs are ventilated/presurized to keep smoke out. Keeping open any door will allow the pressure to drop in the stairwell thereby sucking smoke into it (which you definately do not want)!
Also, often it is best to just stay in your room (with the door closed) and wait for the firemen to arrive if the corridor is full of smoke or heat. Otherwise very useful information but people should realize that the number of fire deaths in the US is dropping drastically (due to fire codes requiring sprinklers, fire doors, etc.)

[This message has been edited by dcpremex (edited 02-08-2001).]
dcpremex is offline  
Old Feb 8, 01, 8:09 am
Join Date: May 2000
Location: Near Tysons Corner, VA (USA)
Posts: 785
As a former firefighter - do NOT prop open any door (including at the top). Most fire stairs are ventilated/presurized to keep smoke out. Keeping open any door will allow the pressure to drop in the stairwell thereby sucking smoke into it (which you definately do not want)! You can actually have a chimney effect with smoke and fire being sucked into the exit stairwell. KEEP ALL DOORS CLOSED!!
Also, often it is best to just stay in your room (with the door closed) and wait for the firemen to arrive if the corridor is full of smoke or heat.
dcpremex is offline  
Old Feb 8, 01, 10:01 pm
Original Member
Join Date: May 1998
Location: Chicago, IL (2 miles from ORD)
Posts: 660
Came across this great PDF article airline smoke hoods. It is very lengthly, 24 pages.

I also found that the article is on a site specifically devoted to flight safety:

I looked for smoke hoods and they are a bit more costly than I thought, over $50. In case you want to by one, here is a site I found:
http://www.gasmask.com/evacu8.html and the company is at http://www.evac-u8.com/evac-u8/compare.htm

[This message has been edited by Aubie (edited 02-08-2001).]
Aubie is offline  
Old Feb 24, 01, 1:55 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Join Date: Sep 2000
Programs: UA Million Miler (lite). NY Metro area.
Posts: 14,922
Bringing this forward. It's very important.

dhammer53 is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread