"Assuring a safer building": Rick Kabele, inspections manager for the Clark County Building Division, with the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino. ( Photograph: Aaron Mayes)
Clark County fire and building officials adopt new inspection and training procedures in the wake of the 2008 Monte Carlo Resort and Casino fire.
NFPA Journal® , May/June 2010
By Fred Durso, Jr.
Visitors to Las Vegas quickly grow accustomed to the extraordinary, but around midday on January 25, 2008, they witnessed an unintended spectacle that had nothing to do with lion tamers, showgirls, or slot machines spewing quarters.
What they saw were portions of the roof, facade, and upper stories of the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino engulfed in fire and smoke. Flaming debris fell and ignited combustible portions of the building’s exterior facade system. The emergency response was immediate and substantial as firefighters and other emergency responders from the Las Vegas metropolitan area arrived en masse. Rescue teams and hotel staff effectively evacuated the 32-story building on the Las Vegas Strip as firefighters, positioned on the roof as well as the 29th and 32nd floors, knocked out windows and contorted their bodies to douse the flames that fed on combustible decorative and exterior wall finish components. Interior sprinklers in the hotel helped confine the fire to only several suites. There were no deaths among the nearly 5,000 hotel guests that day; 13 people suffered minor injuries and smoke inhalation. Investigators found that the fire was caused by improper welding operations on the roof.
In a town with a history of deadly hotel fires (see “Hard Lessons,” page 84), officials have tried to learn as much as they could from the incident. As a result, fire service training and building department procedures have both been modified to reflect the lessons learned from the Monte Carlo fire.
“One of the biggest things that came out of that fire is the need to practice unified command structure,” says Kenneth Morgan, deputy chief of operations for the Clark County Fire Department. “To that end, we’ve conducted several drills where we get other agencies involved and try to work together so we can get everyone on the same page.”
Complementing the fire service’s efforts is another safeguard that keeps a watchful eye on existing hotels. In April 2008, a few months after the Monte Carlo fire, Clark County’s Building Division enacted its Resort Inspection Program, which ensures the continued maintenance of all building safety components and systems. Twenty-two resorts, including the Monte Carlo, have been examined thus far, says Rick Kabele, an NFPA member and inspections manager for Clark County’s Building Division.
“As an outcome of the inspection process and the remedial work undertaken wherever code violations are discovered,” Kabele says, “we are able to assure the public and property management of a safer building and reduced risks to both occupants and property.”
Fire in the sky
The most challenging aspect of the Monte Carlo fire was its location, 32 stories up and on the exterior of the building. “That made it really difficult, because we don’t train for fires on the outside of buildings 30 floors up,” Morgan says.
Initiated by contractors building a steel catwalk on the roof without a hot work permit, the fire started near the roofline and ignited portions of panels and trim made of polystyrene and polyurethane — foams used in construction — along the building’s parapet. The panels were intended to match the texture and appearance of the exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS) used as part of the facade design of the building. With 2,400 of the 3,020 rooms occupied, hotel management immediately evacuated the hotel and casino guests upon the arrival of Clark County firefighters at 10:58 a.m. “Our staff is trained and knowledgeable about the resort’s layout,” says Anton Nikodemus, Monte Carlo’s president and chief operating officer. “Some know every nook and cranny of the building and the grounds. This familiarity proved critical in the process of guiding our guests, and consulting and directing fire personnel throughout the emergency.”
One problem firefighters encountered was a large false wall with signage on the building’s roof that “made getting up to the top of that scaffolding very difficult and put our guys in some pretty awkward positions,” Morgan says. Making matters worse, according to information obtained during NFPA’s site visit, was the melted, flaming foam that dripped onto EIFS panels on lower portions of the building, igniting them.
Meanwhile, flames from the three-alarm blaze shattered windows and entered suites on the 32nd floor, operating 18 automatic sprinklers. The fire seemed to be contained by the sprinklers on the inside of the building, but externally the blaze grew by the minute. Crews immediately rushed to the roof as well as the 29th and 32nd floors. “The advantage we had was how the building was designed,” Morgan says. “It’s like a star — three wings, evenly spaced. If you could get close enough to one side, you could get a good enough stream and had a fairly decent view of what was across from you [at the other wing], but even at that point it was limited and difficult.”
Using their vantage point on the 32nd floor, firefighters, tethered in webbing that held them in place, leaned out windows to extinguish the flames. By 2:20 p.m., the fire was declared under control. “We’ve got a world-class fire department here in Las Vegas, and they measured up to the task and got the job done — and did a great job doing it,” says Girard Page, Clark County senior deputy fire chief.
Analyses of building components taken from the scene and burn inconsistencies on the building’s facade confirmed some early suspicions about the fire. “Either the building codes were inadequate and needed to be modified, or [the hotel] was using the wrong stuff,” says Douglas Evans, a fire protection engineer with the Clark County Development Services Building Division. “I was confident it was the wrong stuff.”
Test results indicated that the EIFS panels installed on flat wall areas and vertical decorative columns, or “pop outs,” were installed with a laminated encapsulant that was too thin. Decorative non-EIFS ornamentation contained excessively thick foam plastics and a noncompliant polyurethane topcoat. “The protective lamina thickness was inconsistent,” Evans says. “Where the vertical columns burned, the lamina was thinner than where the vertical columns didn’t burn.” Test results also indicated that the horizontal bands that didn’t burn were made primarily with fiberglass-reinforced gypsum. “If the foam plastic had been within the thickness limitations and had been encapsulated with the compliant lamina, I’m confident this fire would not have occurred,” Evans adds. “The code limited foam plastic to four inches thick, but a common misinterpretation was if a sufficient portion of the exterior facade was less than four inches, you could take that additional quantity of foam plastic and substitute it with decorative pop outs. The code applied to the Monte Carlo when it was constructed, but it has since changed. This misinterpretation may have been applied during the time the Monte Carlo was built.”
Practice makes better
Clark County fire officials say coordinating efforts the day of the fire was difficult because of the sheer number of responders who arrived at the scene, creating confusion as to the command structure on the ground. At the scene were firefighters from four departments; hotel management and engineering support staff; members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the Nevada Highway Patrol, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; Department of Public Works employees, utility officials, and ambulance crews; and additional responders from Nellis Air Force Base and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. “The biggest difficulty that day was making sure that everyone was involved and knew what was going on,” Morgan says.
Setting up command posts early, Morgan adds, would have helped address this problem. “We brought our mobile command post in and determined one of them would not be enough for this type of fire,” he says. “We basically needed one for operations and one for logistics because of all of the agencies involved.”
Practicing what it preaches, the Clark County Fire Department has aggressively orchestrated annual high-rise drills that address elevator, ventilation, and communication systems, among others. During emergencies, the department favors following the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) enacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. NIMS outlines best practices for coordinating multiple jurisdictions during an emergency regardless of its cause, size, location, or complexity.
Stalled development on the Strip has aided these efforts. Though it’s not yet hosting guests, the 68-story Fontainebleau Resort is sufficiently built out to allow these high-rise drills. Teams practice command control, evaluating the emergency situation and the building structure, divvying up tasks, and lugging equipment up stairwells. Managers from other operational hotels nearby have also offered their buildings for drills. “We’re very fortunate that we have a community that believes in making sure that we can fight fires effectively,” Page says.
All resorts, Page adds, should keep a close eye on hot work activities and evaluate safety protocols. “Make sure your maintenance schedule is on track,” he says. “Even during challenging financial times, you don’t want to lose sight of the systems you paid for when you built the structure. Keep them operational, and make sure they’re tested.”
The Monte Carlo — part of MGM Mirage, which operates a dozen large hotels on the Strip — has heeded Page’s advice. “Our post-incident review determined that our life-safety systems and procedures worked effectively,” Nikodemus says. “We have begun development of a comprehensive plan to enhance and facilitate emergency support between sister properties. We have also increased training and oversight of our hot works policies and procedures to ensure that both internal personnel and outside contractors who perform work at our resorts follow best practices to optimize safety for our guests, employees, and our properties.”
NFPA 51B, Standard for Fire Prevention During Welding, Cutting, and Other Hot Work, says hot work should not be performed within 35 feet of combustibles. A 2009 NFPA report on home and non-home fires involving torches, burners, and soldering equipment identifies 3,400 non-home fires per year from 2003 to 2006. Cutting and welding too close to combustibles is cited for 57 percent of the non-home fires.
Building examinations made through Clark County’s Resort Inspection Program have unearthed a few trends among Las Vegas hotel and resort properties. “Typically in the walls and ceilings of large buildings, we have lots of penetrations of piping, electrical conduits, and HVAC equipment,” says Kabele. “Over time, the fire-stopping materials that were installed rattle and fall out and you wind up with no protection for those penetrations. We take a look at these conditions in buildings, and where there is a non-listed penetration protection, we require them to upgrade to listed fire-stopping materials.”
The department’s checklist also includes maintenance of building utility and support systems as well as repair or remodeling projects done without proper permits or inspections. Resorts are charged for time accrued during the inspection; remediation permit fees are doubled and inspection fees are tripled if the department discovers unpermitted construction work.
An additional testing program, “Life Safety Systems Testing,” is in the final stages of development, Kabele says, and would use many of the provisions and concepts being considered for inclusion in the draft of NFPA 3, Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems.
The building department says it plans to inspect all resorts annually, and so far Kabele hasn’t heard any complaints from the hospitality industry. “The resort community respects the program,” he says. “Everyone has been willing to correct the things we find.”
Even so, safety officials warn that safeguards can only go so far, and that it’s wise to continue to expect the unexpected. “We’re doing everything we can to help mitigate fires like the one at Monte Carlo,” Page says. “But you never know — this is Vegas.”
Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.