Author(s): Robert Duval. Published on May 1, 2008.

Monte Carlo hotel fire
Monte Carlo Hotel Casino Fire

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008

By Bob Duval

At 10:57 a.m. on January 25, 2008, a motorist contacted the Clark County, Nevada, Fire Department (CCFD) dispatch center to report a fire on the roof of the Monte Carlo Hotel Casino. Within moments, the CCFD received several additional calls from passersby, and from within the complex itself, reporting a fire on the upper levels of the hotel tower.

The Monte Carlo, built in 1994 and 1995 under the 1991 edition of the Uniform Building Code, is a 32-story hotel casino resort on the Las Vegas strip. The complex contains 3,020 guest rooms, 2,400 of which were reportedly occupied at the time of the fire, and a 100,373-square-foot (9,325-square-meter) casino. The hotel tower has three wings, each 240 feet (74 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide. A center core contains utility chases and the elevator shafts. Stairwells are located at the end of each wing.

The building has automatic sprinkler systems designed in excess of NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. The sprinkler design, composed mainly of wet-pipe systems, is calculated to provide a density of 0.15 gallons per minute per square foot over a 2,500-square-foot (6.5 liters per square meter over a 232-square-meter) area. The systems are supplied from the Clark County public water system and are supplemented with a diesel driven fire pump. A Class III standpipe system serves the entire building complex, with connections on each floor of the tower and the roof. The complex has a fire command and control center that contains controls for the fire alarm system, sprinkler and fire pump water flow alarms, elevator controls, smoke control systems, emergency generator controls, and voice evacuation system.

The CCFD responded initially at 10:58 a.m. with four engines, two ladders, a heavy rescue unit, two ambulances, and a battalion chief. First-arriving units reported a fire visible at the top center of the hotel tower on the side facing Las Vegas Boulevard, and an engine proceeded to the fire department connection to support the building sprinkler and standpipe systems. The first-arriving unit requested a second alarm at approximately 11:10 a.m. When the second battalion chief (BC 2) arrived, he assumed command of the incident and requested a third alarm at 11:11 a.m.

As additional units, including Las Vegas City and Henderson Fire Department units, arrived as part of the second and third alarms, they were given assignments throughout the complex, including the roof and 32nd floor. CCFD Deputy Chief Stephen Rattigan arrived at approximately 11:15 a.m. and took over command from BC 2. Rattigan filled out his command staff with other chief officers and established a unified command structure with the Metro Police. Command officers met with the representatives of the hotel to determine the status of building’s fire alarms, sprinklers and fire pumps, smoke control systems, and elevators.

Rattigan and his command staff’s objectives began with confining and extinguishing the fire, and evacuating the employees and guests. Next was triaging, treating, and transporting the sick and injured. Ensuring the safety of emergency personnel was also paramount, as was providing food and logistical support during the incident. Ensuring adequate response coverage for the rest of the response area was a priority, as well. Rattigan and his staff also made sure the building's life-safety systems were restored after extinguishment and kept the owner apprised of the situation, helping with the business continuity plan. Finally, they began to conduct the fire investigation for cause and origin.

The hotel administration decided to evacuate the building when it determined the extent of the fire at the time of the fire department’s arrival. The hotel staff, including housekeeping, engineering, and security forces, conducted a systematic search and evacuation of the hotel and casino under the direction of the administration using a detailed corporate plan. The evacuated guests were initially relocated to an outdoor parking lot near the hotel, and then moved to a function room in the nearby MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Both hotels are owned by the MGM Mirage. Thirteen guests were reportedly treated for minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

The hotel’s exterior finish
Fire companies responded to the rooftop and the 32nd floor, where they stretched hose lines from the rooftop standpipe connections to fight the fire that was burning along the combustible components of the building’s architectural trim and the exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS).

The EIFS, a non-load-bearing wall assembly, consists of a layer of expanded polystyrene foam adhered to gypsum sheathing. The exterior side of the panels consists of successive layers of fiberglass mesh and an outside coating of a weather-resistive polymer and cement mixture that can be tailored to a building’s architectural colors and finishes. The insulation board can be fastened to the substrate with adhesive, a mechanical fastener, or both.

EIFSs are constructed to ASTM C1177, Standard Specification for Glass Mat Gypsum Substrate for Use as Sheathing, and the finished wall assemblies are tested to meet a combination of fire test protocols. Among these are NFPA 255, Standard Method of Test of Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials, and NFPA 285, Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components.

NFPA 285 was specifically developed to evaluate various wall finishes that became popular in the 1980s primarily as architectural finishes. Because most of these finishes were combustible or contained components of combustible construction, a test procedure that characterized the ease of ignition and the spread of flame along the vertical surface of the finishes was needed. NFPA 285 was finalized and became a standard in 1998.

The Clark County Department of Development Services, Building Division, established a policy on EIFS effective May 1, 2007, based on Section 2603.5 of the 2003 edition of the International Building Code (IBC). The policy states that any expanded polystyrene or foam plastic insulation in exterior walls must be noncombustible. The intent of this policy is to limit the thickness of the foam plastic in the EIFS to 4 inches (10 centimeters) and to separate the EIFS from the interior spaces of a building using an approved thermal barrier as a substrate.

A greater thickness is permissible if an International Code Council Evaluation Service Report provides specific data on material thickness in excess of 4 inches (10 centimeters). The IBC does not provide prescriptive regulations for exterior features such as cornices, pop-out logos, accent bands, and other decorative features that use foam plastic. However, the construction of the Monte Carlo Hotel Casino predated the Clark County EIFS policy, so the policy did not apply to the existing EIFS installations.

With consideration for the structural limitations and burning characteristics of expanded polystyrene, limited applications of foam plastic ornamental features in which the foam is more than 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick is permitted under the following guidelines:

  1. Decorative features must represent a very small percentage of the exterior wall surface and may be applied only where open to the atmosphere
    above, not beneath a ceiling or soffit such as a portico, porch, or porte cochère.
  2. The exterior finish coating must be listed as approved for the wall assembly.
  3. If the decorative feature is a vertical, rather than horizontal, band that rises one or more stories or is more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) high and 2 feet (0.6 meters) wide, it will be considered a wall assembly and will be required to comply with the limitations of Sections 2603.1 and 2603.5.7 of the IBC.
  4. The decorative element’s foam, measured from the substrate, may be no more than 10 inches (25 centimeters) thick. If greater depth is required, secondary noncombustible framing and sheathing must be used. Brake metal forms are another option to reduce foam thickness.
  5. Total foam thickness for any decorative feature surrounding or adjacent to an exit may not exceed the limitations of the approved wall assembly being used.
  6. Decorative elements, such as grille work, located on the outside face of a wall that is required to be of noncombustible construction must also be constructed of noncombustible materials only.
  7. In all cases, foam plastic must be in contact with a noncombustible substrate to eliminate concealed combustible spaces.

All projecting ornamental features that incorporate foam plastic must be approved before construction, and the drawings must clearly show the locations on the elevations and include the details and dimensions of the features.1

The response
At the Monte Carlo, the polystyrene and polyurethane portions of the EIFS panels and trim burned along the building’s parapet, and melting foam ran down the exterior edge of the hotel, starting fires in other EIFS panels. As the fire spread from the center of the west and south wings of the hotel, it also began to burn downward, exposing the windows of the suites on the 32nd floor.

When the heat caused several windows on the 32nd floor to fail, flames spread into the building. In several of the suites, sprinklers operated, confining the interior fires and allowing suppression forces to extinguish them. A total of 18 automatic sprinklers operated.

On the rooftop, firefighters used a catwalk installed behind the parapet to reach the exterior edge of the façade to battle the flames with multiple hose lines. Fire companies on the 32nd floor also used hose lines to extinguish the exterior flames by directing water out of the suite windows across the space between the wings.

The fire was declared under control at 2:20 p.m., and the last of the suppression units left the scene at 10:32 p.m.

The investigation
Fire investigators from CCFD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives surveyed the scene and interviewed several witnesses immediately following the fire. They determined that the most probable cause of the blaze was improper cutting and welding operations by contractors who were on the roof installing a steel catwalk as part of a window-washing apparatus.

The hotel reopened 1,200 guest rooms and the casino on February 15, 2008. By February 22, an additional 1,300 rooms had been reopened. The remaining rooms, mostly on the upper floors, are still under repair as of this writing.

The total damage caused by the fire and the associated business interruption is estimated as $100 million.

End Notes

  1. Clark County Department of Development Services, Building Division Policy PE-CI-IBC-005 Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) on Exterior Walls (5/1/07).

Bob Duval is NFPA’s senior fire investigator.