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...

Undisputedly, the building department's role is primary and of utmost importance for all new construction projects. They must play their important role in reviewing and approving all structural, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and other plans and conduct the respective field inspections. But then, the fire marshal and the fire prevention division must be fully involved and actively participate in the review, approval and inspection of all fire protection and life safety systems designs for all new constructions also.

History has shown disastrous failures when the fire departments did not have any authority over the construction review and the fire prevention division where taken out of the plans review and inspection process. In the case of the MGM Grand fire back in 1980, the building department's unilateral review and approval of the owner's request to omit fire sprinkler installation, despite the objections of the fire marshal, resulted in a tragedy. Where the fire could have been contained and extinguished by the operation a couple of fire sprinklers, 85 civilians died. And tragically, and rather similarly in the 2007 Charleston fire, nine of our own firefighters lost their lives in that inferno, because no fire sprinklers were installed even after several expansions to the building.

Unfortunately, passage of time erases the memories, and that is when complacency sets in. Some might not be cognizant of the conceptual relationship between frequency and probability of an event, versus the consequences and the final outcome. The frequency and probability of having a catastrophic fire might be small; but as we have seen, the consequences of such fire are devastating. Fire prevention programs assist us in lowering the probabilities of such events occurring, and drastically decrease the magnitude of the consequences. Logically then, fire prevention programs must be viewed as an integral part, and one of the most significant functions of all fire departments', and must be viewed as a much higher priority for us in the fire service.

As we are all painfully aware, our country is facing severe economic challenges these days. And there are way too many examples of plans review and fire prevention programs around the country bearing the brunt of the budget assaults, and losing virtually all of their staff, if not the entire division.

While the MGM Grand fire underlined the importance of fire prevention, and we have made great strides since then in striving for safer communities, these staff reductions could set us back decades. Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Then from all the historical lessons from the MGM Grand and Charleston fires, why should we expect any different results next time around, if we allow our fire prevention programs to be drastically reduced and our role in plans review and fire inspection be eliminated? We must remember what philosopher George Santayana said, "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.