Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire

November 21, 2010, marks the 30th anniversary of the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas. Most of our senior peers from that era certainly remember the MGM tragedy. But even our young rookies back then have now reached the retirement age and have limited...

The MGM Grand disaster was not a fire suppression failure, and the elected officials and the public administrators recognized that. After all, firefighters did all that they could to react to a flashover scenario in a megaresort. And with all respect, they were successful in their efforts and contained the fire to the floor of origin and knocked it down in about 90 minutes.

It was quite clear to the elected officials and the public administrators that the MGM Grand catastrophe was a major failure in plans review and construction codes enforcement. The numerous design flaws and construction code violations that contributed to the magnitude of the fire, were obvious results of the building department's unilateral review and approval system that did not allow any involvement from the fire marshal during design review and participation in the construction phase of the project.

As a result, the MGM Grand fire underlined the importance of fire prevention for the fire departments in Southern Nevada. Fire departments recognized that, as an integral part of the fire service, the fire prevention division's involvement and active participation in the construction review and inspection process is essential, and not only provides for the safety of the public, but also has direct impact on the firefighters' safety. The fire departments started recruiting the expertise and expanding their fire prevention division's role in the plans review phase of projects, and in performing in-depth inspections of the fire protection and life safety systems for all new buildings.

Thirty years later Las Vegas is the safest tourist destination in the world. Fire prevention is about the fire that did not happen; and just like the story of "the fish that got away," it is rather hard to prove its value. But as a direct result of the fire prevention division's proactive participation in the development of stringent fire code, active involvement in the design development and plans review and inspection for all new construction development, and continuous inspection and maintenance of the existing facilities, Las Vegas is one of the safest cities in the world. Our fire calls are less than four percent of the annual call volume.

It is important to reiterate that the MGM Grand fire was not a suppression failure; it was a failure in prevention. The responding firefighters did the best that they could. But due to the lack of built-in fire protection systems, once the fire progressed passed the incipient stages, catastrophic conflagration was inevitable.

Today, CCFD and LVFD have both obtained the ISO Class 1 rating, and the Commission on Fire Accreditation International accreditation. But, even with all our resources, expertise and experience, all things being the same, if hypothetically we had to fight a very similar fire in the same exact building with all those construction deficiencies and without fire sprinkler systems, have no doubt that the results would not be much different, and many dozens of victims could be expected. And that would not be due to lack of fire suppression excellence.

Have we had fires in hotels since the MGM Grand fire 30 years ago? Of course, hundreds of them. But due to the built-in fire protection systems and our stringent fire code enforcement activities, the fires were contained and extinguished and our responding crews minimized property losses, and we have not had any fire fatalities in the high-rises.

So what could our country's fire service leaders learn from the MGM Grand fire 30 years ago?

First, remember the importance of our fire prevention duties. Fire prevention is an important priority and is instrumental in protecting our communities and providing not only for the safety of our citizens, but also our own firefighters, making sure that they go home safe to their loved ones at the end of each shift. Other tragic fires, such as the 1991, One Meridian Plazaa fire in Philadelphia (where we lost 3 firefighters), and the 2007, Charleston Super Sofa Store fire (where we lost nine firefighters) also point to the same conclusions.

Second, fire prevention divisions must be an integral part of the fire department, and must be proactively involved in the planning, development, design review and construction inspection phases for all new projects. Design omissions, non-code compliance conditions, and other installation defects during the construction of the buildings, can have devastating impacts on the outcome of an incident; where even the most prompt and gallant efforts by the responding crews might not be adequate to prevent a catastrophe.