How the MGM Grand Fire Changed Fire Codes + Standards

John Devlin, P.E.

Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino fire, which occurred on November 21, 1980, killed 85 people and injured 700 more.

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Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino fire, which occurred on November 21, 1980, killed 85 people and injured 700 more. The fire, caused by an electrical fault associated with a refrigerated pastry display case, originated in an unoccupied restaurant on the casino’s first floor. The fire was discovered by hotel staff early in the morning when, by that time, it had evolved to open flaming and was increasing in size and intensity. Soon after that, the fire reached flashover condition and spread rapidly across the casino floor. Within approximately 15 minutes after the fire was discovered, the entire casino was involved in the fire. The fire was limited to the first-floor casino, however, smoke spread vertically into the hotel tower floors. The casino was not protected with automatic sprinklers or automatic fire detection and alarm system.

Contribution of Interior Finishes + Furnishings

The MGM Grand fire was a significant event in the fire protection industry because it demonstrated the contribution of interior finishes and furnishings to the fire hazard. Plastic wall coverings, cellulose acoustic ceiling tiles, attachment adhesive, polyurethane materials, and polyvinyl products in the restaurant space and casino created a fuel load that allowed for rapid-fire growth and spread and dense smoke production. Smoke spread into the hotel tower via seismic joints in the floor/ceiling assembly, open shafts and pipe chases induced by the stack effect had significant consequences to the hotel tower occupants. Approximately 64 victims were located on the upper floors of the hotel and died from smoke inhalation.

Fire codes and standards were updated because of this event and other similar significant fire events that occurred in hotel and assembly occupancies in the early 1980s. The retroactive installation of automatic sprinkler systems, fire detection and alarm systems, and smoke control systems in existing casinos, especially in Las Vegas, are notable. U.S. building codes, at the time of the fire and today, required these fire protection and life safety systems in new construction. Plastics and similar materials used in building construction continue to grow and present potential fire safety challenges that require the codes/standards to evolve to address building fire safety.

Impacts on Fire Safety Today

We were involved in the post-fire investigation as well as the building and fire codes and standards process specific to casino and hotel occupancies. Just 81 days after the MGM fire, a fire occurred at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel resulting in eight fatalities and injuring approximately 200 people. U.S. hotel brands, beginning in the early 1980s, focused on preventing these tragic fire events. Jensen Hughes, providing building and fire safety engineering expertise, was retained by several major U.S. hotel brands, including Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt, in retrofitting existing properties with fire protection and life safety systems and developing fire safety programs and procedures. These relationships continue today.

The MGM Grand and other fire tragedies that occurred in hotel and assembly occupancies in the early 1980s emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to building fire safety. Complete active and passive fire protection systems, such as automatic sprinklers, fire detection/alarm/communications systems, limited combustible and noncombustible materials, and interior finishes, are part of the measures that have significantly improved building fire safety in modern casino and hotel occupancies.

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