By Amy Bradley-Hole Travel columnist
updated 4/4/2007 9:37:11 AM ET 2007-04-04T13:37:11

It's been more than 25 years since two back-to-back hotel fires in Las Vegas claimed the lives of nearly 100 people. In that time, hotel fire detection and alarm systems have become very sophisticated, using advanced technology to sense problems and stop disasters in the blink of an eye. A top-notch system can detect smoke in one second, turn on alarms and strobe lights in the next second, and alert the local fire department by the third second. But no system is foolproof, and no property is fireproof — that's why it's always important to brush up on what to do when you hear an alarm go off in your hotel.

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Pay attention. There is no more important piece of advice I can give than this: When you hear a fire alarm, stop what you are doing and pay attention. That shrill sound you hear in the middle of your pay-per-view is no mere annoyance. Nor is it a great excuse to wangle a free night for your "inconvenience." It is an ALARM, and it must be treated as such. I hear so many people say that hotel alarms are usually just false alarms. Not true. Hotel fire systems are extremely sophisticated, and false alarms are rare. While an alarm certainly doesn't mean that a fire is raging, it does mean that something unusual is going on. Fire alarm systems detect everything from heat and smoke to flooding and failed electrical systems. Yes, seemingly harmless situations may trigger an alarm, but you can't know the situation is harmless until after it's over.

So if you hear an alarm, stay tuned for further information. Turn down the TV and quit singing those show tunes in the shower. In fact, get out of the shower and put some clothes on. At this point, any number of staff are rushing to the fire alarm control panel and trying to identify the source of the alarm. Most likely, you will soon hear some type of announcement on a loudspeaker. You'll either get an all-clear or you'll receive instructions on evacuating. If you're told to evacuate, do so immediately. If you've heard no announcement within a few minutes of the alarm, go ahead and evacuate to the lobby if you feel uneasy. Or you can call the front desk or an operator for more information.

Know your surroundings. So what if you do have to evacuate? It's best to know how to safely leave the property before panic sets in. Always check the notice on the back of your door as soon as you arrive in your hotel room. That's where you'll find the handy little map that shows the location of the nearest stairwells and exits. Pay special attention to the distance from your room to these exits. Although emergency lighting and exit signs should work in a fire, it's best to be prepared for the worst. In case you're stumbling in the dark or the hallway is smoky, it's incredibly helpful to have a good sense of just how far along the corridor you'll need to crawl to reach a stairwell. If you're really on top of things, you will count the number of doors between you and an exit.

And though it should go without saying, it doesn't hurt to repeat it: Never use an elevator during an alarm. You don't want to be in the way of firefighters who may be trying to rush to a fire, and you certainly don't want to be stuck in a small box if the electrical systems fail!

Locate your life-saving equipment — then leave it alone! Check to make sure that your hotel has smoke alarms, sprinklers, fire extinguishers, manual pull alarms (those "Break in Case of Fire" boxes) and fire doors (doors that automatically shut behind you to help keep flames from spreading). If I ever found myself in a hotel without these features, I would seriously reconsider my stay.

Go ahead and smoke in your room if you want; unless you're blowing smoke right onto the smoke detector, it is unlikely to go off just because you're smoking. But it probably will go off if you tamper with it, so leave it alone. And ladies, that sprinkler head is not a great place to hang your dress so the wrinkles can fall out. Put too much pressure on it, and you might just get an unexpected shower — and you will set off the alarm. I speak from experience on this one (don't ask). And don't get me started on people playing with fire extinguishers in hotel hallways. Spraying your buddies with foam may seem like lots of fun after that third mai tai, but it can get you kicked out of the hotel.

Help us help you. If you know that you or someone else in your room might need extra help in an emergency, please let an employee know. Hotels have ways of tracking these "special needs" rooms, and if an evacuation occurs, they'll send staff to your room to assist you immediately. Don't be afraid to ask for help, even if you just have a really bad sprained ankle that might keep you from hustling down the stairs. Hotel employees are there to serve you at all times!

Be honest. I know guests sometimes try to cram way too many people into a room. After all, who wants to pay for an extra room or a suite when the family just needs to rest for a few hours? Believe it or not, hotels don't impose occupancy limits to make more money; they restrict occupancy because the fire marshal says so. Firefighters must have an accurate count of the guests in each room when they perform rescue operations, and guests must be able to exit the room safely. Too many people in too small a space can cause chaos, as rollaway beds and cots take up precious space. You don't want to literally trip over bodies as you try to reach the door in an emergency. Don't risk lives by being cheap. Give the hotel an accurate count of how many people will be in each room, and if you're told that's too many, don't argue.

Trips should be fun, but hotel fires and other emergencies are no joke. They happen, and they happen more often than you might think. I've seen two hotel fires and countless other emergencies and evacuations during my years in the hotel business, but because the employees were well trained and the guests kept their cool, no one was hurt. So be informed, be prepared, and be safe!

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. E-mail her or read more of her articleson!


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