Legislative Maneuver Guts Hotel & Motel Fire Safety Act

A dismayed fire community has belatedly learned that a mugging or an accident took place on Capitol Hill in the closing days of the 104th Congress. The victim was the Hotel & Motel Fire Safety Act, which requires that government employees stay in fire-safe lodgings when traveling on official business. Whether the deed was a sinister plot or merely the unintended consequence of a "legislative correction," the end result was to gut the fire safety act by wiping out its reporting and enforcement requirements.

The culprit was the Department of Defense (DOD), which pleads innocent and denies that it intended to destroy the act. According to a DOD spokesperson, all they wanted was to simplify accounting procedures. Whatever the motive, it caught everyone by surprise and a rescue operation is underway to repair the damage.

The law was passed in 1990 after a series of multi-death fires in which government employees were among the victims. The DuPont Plaza hotel fire in Puerto Rico was the incident that triggered congressional action. The act mandated that federal travelers had to stay in buildings protected by hard-wired smoke detectors or sprinklers if the structures were more than three floors in height. It also required that state fire marshals provide the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) with a list of fire-safe hotels and motels in their jurisdictions. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) was responsible for compliance by making sure that federal employees would be paid per diem expenses only if they stayed in overnight lodgings on the approved list. In addition, government meetings and conferences had to take place in fire-safe buildings.

Since the federal government spends more that $1 billion per year on travel, the act was seen as an incentive to encourage hotel-motel operators to install smoke detectors and sprinklers, even when not required by state or local codes. In protecting government employees, the act also was protecting the general public and it was hailed as a major breakthrough in fire safety legislation.

In actual practice, compliance by federal agencies was spotty. Some were strict about ordering their employees to stay in fire-safe buildings. Others ignored the law and didn't bother to submit reports to the GAO, which never cracked down on enforcement. And, some were unaware of the new safety rules. Regardless, the act was accomplishing its purpose; by last year, more than 17,000 hotels and motels had qualified for the approved list and many had installed sprinklers because they wanted to get that lucrative government business.

Last fall, in an effort to cut red tape and paperwork, the DOD attached a rider to a defense appropriation bill that eliminated the reporting requirement and left it up to each agency to comply with the act on its own. It slipped through unnoticed in the crush of bills that were passed as Congress adjourned to go home for the election campaign. "At no point, was there any intention to jeopardize the effect of this act or the safety of government employees," says Susan Hansen, a Pentagon spokesperson, who insists that Defense Department personnel will continue to stay in lodgings that are on the approved list.

Fire organizations, the Con-gressional Fire Service Caucus and the hotel-motel industry which has spent millions of dollars to improve fire safety were outraged when they discovered that the teeth had been taken out of the act. All that's left is the approved list, with no reporting or enforcement requirements. "It was a stealth attack in the middle of the night," says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who introduced the original act and led the battle for its passage, with full support from the fire-rescue leadership.

Thomas G. Daly, vice president for loss prevention for the Hilton hotels, is concerned that so many federal agencies failed to comply with the act. He charges that the USFA failed to educate these agencies as to the law's requirements and he faults the GAO for failing to enforce it. Daly also asks why no one was paying attention when the DOD rider slipped through.

It's a fair question. Everyone acknowledges that they were caught by surprise and are now taking steps to correct the mistake. The USFA has held a series of meetings with the DOD, other federal agencies, fire service leaders and hotel-motel representatives in an effort to find an administrative solution that will keep the act in force, but simplify the compliance process. On the legislative front, Congressman Boehlert's staff is preparing a new bill to restore the act also with an aim to make the reporting and enforcement procedures more manageable.

In a curious way, the Defense Department may have done everyone a favor if the revised act eliminates some of the paperwork and red tape that made it difficult to enforce. Sonny Scarff, a former fire captain, is the director of fire safety for the Marriott hotel chain, which took the lead in voluntarily putting sprinklers in all of its properties long before there was a Hotel & Motel Fire Safety Act. Scarff points out: "If they can simplify the reporting procedure, it can make the act more effective."

If it works out that way, then something good will have come from something bad. But the incident stands as a warning that the fire service must always be alert for bills that "merely correct" a safety law whether it's in the U.S. Congress, a state legislature or a city council. As shown here, the unintended consequences can be devastating.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.