Fire tragedies have occurred in New Zealand accommodation buildings before in our history with several well known hotels being destroyed by flames, and it is largely through good fortune that loss of life has not happened in more recent times.
Smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and other modern detection and prevention devices have dramatically reduced the risk, particularly in the major hotel chains where there are adequate numbers of well trained staff to deal with emergencies, the building is divided into fire cells and skilled contractors conduct regular maintenance. Similarly, the New Zealand Fire Service sees little risk with motels, normally well maintained by their owners and managers. But the service is very keen to be involved in the budget end of the accommodation industry, such as youth hostels and backpackers.
“We have a lot of concern about some of that type of accommodation because there is usually less money spent on them,” said Roy Warren, senior fire safety officer for the Auckland City Fire Area. “The people who stay there are often transient and not fluent in English, so we’re relying heavily on the managers of those premises to be especially aware of taking care of their guests.” He says the main concerns with any accommodation is that:
1. It has an evacuation scheme approved by the fire service
2. Owners and managers know how to operate it.
“In order for a safe evacuation, it’s absolutely essential that managers ensure the routes to the exit doors are always kept clear and exit doors are able to be opened. In some places we find that either there are items piled in the corridors or the doors themselves can’t easily be opened,” said Mr Warren.
“Something else I often find is smoke-stop doors being wedged open. Smoke-stop doors are there to buy people time – to prevent smoke travelling in to escape paths so that people can get out. Managers need to make sure these doors are operated the way they’re supposed to be.”
“It’s also important to ensure fire alarm systems are properly maintained – not just allowed to sit there for years and years. Regular maintenance can save money. For instance, if there are false alarm calls because a spider’s made its home in a smoke detector, the fire service will charge for it. But the real danger is that people learn to ignore alarm systems when they go off. It’s mandatory to have checks but generally they only ensure the system actually works – not that it’s properly maintained. Property owners and managers can clean those systems themselves if they know what they’re doing. If not, they should talk to their servicing agent.”
But the most important thing, he said, was to prevent fire in the first place.
“That’s where people with budget accommodation need to be safe with anything that produces heat, such as: heaters, cigarettes and especially cooking.” Even when cooking in guests’ rooms was forbidden, some would still do it – which managers should be alert for, he said. “We’ve had many fires in such premises but we’ve been very fortunate so far that there hasn’t been loss of life.”
Mr Warren says that while most youth hostels and backpackers are well run and maintained, with some the situation was as bad as it could be. We visit these places as often as we can and we give advice to the owners and managers,” while old wooden buildings might pose the greatest risk, he said the fire service did not regard a building’s construction as the major risk factor. A fatal fire could start anywhere.
“If someone is asleep in a motel room built of concrete, there are enough furnishings in there to kill plenty of people if they catch fire. Modern furniture is full of foam rubber. With an average chair, that’s equivalent to at least a gallon of petrol -and they burn like crazy. People don’t realize the amount of smoke that’s produced and that it totally displaces the breathable air.
That’s why we teach children to get low and get out.”
Good maintenance, he said, did not need to be expensive. “There are lots of things you can do to keep people safe without spending any money at all. It’s about keeping the place clean and tidy, making sure the exits work, are clear and people know what to do. Usually, all it takes is a walk around the premises each day to make sure those things are in place.”