Hotel employees: What are you asked to do in the event of a fire?
February 19, 2014 9:12 PM   Subscribe

Have you or someone you know ever worked in a hotel? Or are you a firefighter? If so, I am studying fire safety and would like to know what (if anything) hotel employees are trained to do in the event of a fire?

If the fire alarm goes off, do hotel employees go room to room trying to wake people up? Do they have a list of guests and attempt a head count in the parking lot? Do they report to fire fighters about which rooms might be occupied? Or which rooms house ADA guests? I realize this is a very broad question, but if you have ever worked in a hotel, I'd appreciate hearing what you were instructed to do. I know answers might vary widely.

I plan to make some calls, but I'd like a little background so I can ask smarter questions.
posted by 99percentfake to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I worked at a University hotel/residence/hostel front desk in Canada a few years ago and if there was a fire alarm, we would take a pre-printed list of names from the fire folder (We printed it off during reconciliation each night around midnight so it wasn't always 100% up to date), secured our front desk and keys cabinets (really important! otherwise we'd be compromising security for ALL of our guests) and headed outside to meet up with the fire fighters. We also had two specific rooms we could house hearing-impaired guests in that had light up fire alarms vs. sound-only alarms.

We were NEVER expected to go back into the building at all, nevermind into the guest areas on upper floors. It would have been a huge liability for our management. Ensuring the building was evacuated was completely up to the firefighters.

After the All Clear was called by the fire department, we'd help with things like turning the elevators back on (I think they turned off automatically when the alarm was activated), silencing the alarm panel and make sure any guests that had managed to get locked out in the hubbub got let back into their rooms.

One of us also wore a hard hat to signify we were the fire marshall for the building which basically meant we were in charge of getting all the staff out of our small front desk area, and we were usually the one the fire department would liason with first.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 9:35 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the kitchens of the hotels I worked at, we were all trained to turn off our stations, then leave to a designated spot, just like an office building. The Sous Chefs would make sure the walk-ins were secure. Then the sous chefs and captains would take a headcount outside after we had exited the building. After we would return, pretty much everything potentially ruined would be thrown, and then it would be back to business as usual.

Room Service was closer related to standard hotel functions, and were not under the kitchen hierarchy. They seemed to just leave ASAP. I do not know what the remainder of the hotel's plans were.

Edit: This was in a boutique hotel.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:48 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have not worked in a hotel but I have been evacuated as a guest from a skyscraper hotel in St. Louis, and I can tell you that if there was an assembly area, it wasn't evident, signed, or otherwise communicated to the guests, and there was no head count. (This may have been because there was construction going on and the alarm was likely an electrical - we were evacuated twice in one night - but that's not supposed to make a difference under the law.)

I strongly suspect standards vary by state and fire district.
posted by gingerest at 10:34 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've worked in a few hotels. Generally the BOH restaurant staff is supposed to shut down everything and vacate. The front of house is supposed to calmly get people outside. Front desk people are the ones who are supposed to be handling pretty much everything. Tracking down the source of the alarm, getting guests out, communicating with the FD. Yes they will go room to room, yes they have guest counts, who is purposely using an ADA room and would need assistance, etc. The FD showing up will likely be seeking out whoever is in charge of the front desk or security depending on the set up, unless there are obvious flames shooting out of the building.

In reality the alarm is almost always 1) system error 2) someone cooking in room (think hotplate) 3) kid pulling alarm.

So I've come to approach this like this.. as server or bartender I apologize to the customer for the noise, let them know that worst case the door is right there, and that I'm still happy to make another drink or bring dinner.
posted by efalk at 10:35 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should add, most of the folks I know who were responsible for getting guests out of their rooms probably would run and save you. Most. Overall (the entire hotel staff) the feeling seemed to be, not my problem, however I think the more responsible, and braver people among the entire staff would do a lot to ensure safety in the event of a real emergency.
posted by efalk at 10:38 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I worked on Star Island, a hotel/retreat center made of 100-year-old wood 6 miles from shore, we had weekly fire drills. Every staff member had a section and they were expected to check every room in their section, including under beds and in closets in case a frightened child was hiding. (Some managers would hide to make sure this was happening.) We weren't supposed to risk our lives if our section was already on fire (or a manager waving their arms saying "I'm the fire." in the drill) but we still needed to report that. The visitors knew about designated meeting areas, and there were also folks in these spots checking names and keeping track of sections that had been checked. I was a floater--I went to the meeting area and was told which sections to check due to workers' days off.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:40 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

i worked housekeeping in a hotel at a west coast vacation spot. as has been said upthread, there's a guest list with notes about disabilities (and pets in my former employer's case). in case of a fire we were to clear any guests we immediately see and head to a predesignated place. i was never there when this happened (housekeeping is generally only on site for a few hours). i was there for an earthquake where there was a tsunami alarm - we each took part of the list and cleared the hotel in sections, with the manager going around at the end to make sure it was all done and we all hung out across the street on higher land until we were told the threat was over (i think by the fire department).
posted by nadawi at 6:24 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've worked in a few hotels in Texas. As a front desk clerk, I've always been advised to stay at the desk until either my manager showed up or the fire department showed up. Answer any phone calls with advice to read the safety info on the back of the door.

As a manager, I've always been told to get up front and wait for the fire department. We had reports to print and provide them for search and rescue.

Everywhere I've worked has always told me to not help customers, as it is a liability. But after saying that, the manager would look me in the eyes and say, "I have to say that. If I'm here and there's a fire, you bet your ass I'm going to help someone if they ask me to."

Our housekeepers were always advised to push their cart into room or closet so the halls are clear, then to evacuate to our designated meeting spot.

These have all been pretty much economy-level hotels.
posted by kpetrich at 11:04 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worked front desk at a chain hotel several years ago doing night audit (so I was the only front desk staff for a five floor hotel from 11pm-6am), and there was no fire training whatsoever, that I can recall.
posted by wending my way at 11:56 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've experience as both employee and a guest.

As an employee: I've worked everything from night auditor to manager at a large international hotel chain with 250 rooms, full restaurant and bar, and a convention center. This was 15+ years ago, but here was our protocol.

Regardless of which shift it occurred on, the first thing that *always* happened was that between 25-50% of the rooms would try to call the front desk. Guests would want to know what was happening, if they needed to evacuate, what that noise was (yes!), where somebody might be, if maintenance was solving the problem, and most mystifying of all, if someone would turn that noise off so they could sleep. In all cases, we alerted the guest to read the fire evacuation sign on the back of their door and, if possibly, exit the building immediately, safely, and calmly.

When the fire alarm went off, it automatically alerted the fire department. On nights and as managers, we also phoned emergency services to verify and report. We had a fire alarm system panel in our back offices which alerted us in which zone the fire alarm was either pulled or went off. During the day if the alarm went off, maintenance would check it out if safely possible. During the night, that was the security guard's job. If nothing was found, they would alert the front desk. We would still continue evacuating, because only the fire department could declare the scene safe, but with better knowledge of what was going on.

As for evacuating guest rooms: during the day, all managers, maintenance, and our bell boys would clear the rooms by knocking on doors (underlying this was IF THEY COULD DO IT SAFELY). I'm not sure if that violated fire safety protocol, but I always felt it did. We had a pre-printed guest list but it was never used by those people because, especially during the summer when every room could be full, it was much more safe to just knock on every door. Often the front desk manager or lead would cross check rooms off with them on the radio. I want to emphasize that, while the rest of the staff would (or should have) evacuated, front desk employees always stayed. We had 3 fire exits we had access to, and with a full hotel, 3-4 front desk employees were needed during a evacuation to help answer phones, communicate, etc.

Two employees would also call rooms to inform people to evacuate, one working forward and one working backward through the room list, with the exception of the zone where the alarm went off, which was always called first (and cleared first by hotel personnel).

The bar manager, restaurant manager, and convention manager were responsible for clearing their own areas, with the MOD (manager of the day) coordinating. These always evacuated quite quickly and with few problems. Guests on the other hand...

Most people would gather in the parking lot. We would always try and go through the crowd with the most to up date room list as possible (this was easier later at night, worst in the evening, and somewhat awful mid-morning, but then we could coordinate with housekeeping), and check off rooms. We would ask if any of their party was missing, if anyone had seen smoke, etc. One of the things that was quite maddening about this was that people would often head to their cars, and sometimes, even leave. Not to mention that sometimes people weren't just there. Any rooms with nobody reporting were supposed to be given to the emergency responders, but it never got that far while I was there (as there was never a real fire).

Staff had a designated meeting spot, but I must say that never worked real well as some staff would do their best to help out while others would go there. As a manager, that was my real nightmare - that we would lose an employee, not a guest, because nobody knew the employee was missing. No matter how many official protocols we had in place, it happened every time, simply because a lot of staff couldn't stand not helping our guests, and not only because they had good hearts, but because of this: never, ever underestimate the capacity of people needing someone in charge to tell them what to do. I'm sure there's a name for this, but I always called it the authority complex. Even if it was a housekeeper or a bell boy, by representing the hotel they had authority and only then would some guests evacuate despite all other signs they needed to do so.

At night, however, it was a completely different story. After 11 the only employees were the bar, the night auditor, and a lone security guard. After 2 it was just 2 employees. In that case, the security guard would personally evacuate the zone (if possible), the auditor would handle the phone. We had a phone system in place - much like the wake up call system - where it was supposed to call every room with a prerecorded announcement to evacuate, but it took so much time to set up that I don't think we ever successfully used it. I'm sure they have much better systems now, but the one we had was archaic. The night auditor also called the general manager to let them know what was going on. Remember, during this whole time, guests would also be calling wanting to know what was going on. One nice thing was at that time of night the occupied room list was accurate. We also had ADA rooms which we would personally evacuate if possible.

The worst thing about evacuating a hotel was that one never knew for sure how many people were there. Guests had guests, guests lied about how many people they had in their rooms, they were out, etc. etc. This was were license plate numbers came in handy - if we were missing a room's occupants, we checked to see if their car was in the parking lot. (Although we used the license plates far more for car alarms going off than anything else.)

After the fire department had declared the scene safe, we would alert guests that they could go back to their rooms.

As an employee, I have to say: I always felt that we were not very well trained in protocol, despite everything, and that our protocol HAD to break some rules. However, the best teacher was experience, and since then I always take fire drills very seriously, because that may be the only experience you may get evacuating a building. As in other comments, the fire alarms were never true emergencies (except for one clever gentlemen who pulled the alarm because he was having a heart attack) but we always treated them as such because you NEVER KNEW.

As a guest:

I've had to evacuate twice and had smoke in my room once. Both times I evacuated in the middle of the night and did not see any hotel staff (but I also evacuated immediately) until I got to the parking lot where they were trying to gather us in one spot.

Lastly, at a very large hotel a few years ago in Europe, I inadvertently forgot to check if an electric device could take the voltage, and the cord caught on fire. I caught it immediately and put it in the sink. There was a very strong odor of burned plastic and a little smoke, but the smoke alarm did not go off. In less than 2 minutes, however, a security guard and 2 maintenance men knocked on my door. I don't know if they were alerted via the strong odor or if a silent alarm had gone off; however, due to their response time and the group, I'm inclined to think the latter.

Hope this helps.
posted by barchan at 12:01 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

In addition to my comment, one thing I learned from the guests & employees in regards to fire safety is that everyone had their own way of reacting, but you could roughly sort those behaviors into different groups.

Some people wanted to gather information; some people froze; some people sought authority. Some people acted immediately, others needed to deliberate. Some denied. Very very rarely was there ever panic. What I wished at the time, and this in regards to your study of fire safety, was that protocols would cover all of these reactions - by both guest and employee - instead of assuming one direct course of action that everyone would take. Because not everyone was capable of that course of action - except in cases of those of us with experience. The best guest reactions were by the ones who had actually read the back of the door beforehand and thus had taken even just a second to think about what to do (or had been through a previous fire evacuation) and the best employees were those who had been through a drill or a real fire alarm.

At any rate, protocols always seemed to be written for those with experience- instead of the non-experienced who could be sorted into those groups....although that's just my humble, non-expert opinion.
posted by barchan at 12:55 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hi, Firefighter Sara here. I'm a firefighter and probationary level two fire inspector in the state of North Carolina. My answers will mostly be limited to the state of North Carolina: which is an ICC state with our own state-specific codes. I have generally worked in a vacation area with many tourists and many, many, many hotels.

Code enforcement is imperative for our safety, the safety of the employees, and the safety of the customers. Codes deal with fire safety systems, building access, building and decorative materials, exits and signage, and a lot more. I am a code nerd. Sorry.

Building fire alarms are USUALLY monitored by an offsite alarm monitoring company, such as ADT. In the case of an alarm going off, usually there are multiple fire alarm control panels that firefighters have access to and are aware of via pre-fire plans (walkthroughs by a company who has the hotel in their district) or an inspection conducted by a licensed code official. The panel should tell us the general location of the problem, so we can start there and work in a pattern out from there. If it's just an alarm, people may or may not evacuate, many times because Alarms Are LOUD and Strobes Are VISUALLY DISTURBING. But the employee at the desk or manager on duty will usually have already contacted the alarm company and maintenance to reset the alarm - we cannot, as firefighters, reset the alarm. A key holder from the business or technician from the alarm company has that responsibility because we don't want the liability.

Commercial structures that meet certain requirements SHALL be sprinkled for confinement and life safety reasons. We are generally aware of what buildings are sprinkled, because our inspectors are involved in plan review and will go through the process with the developers and contractors. We can boost pressure in a sprinkled building by feeding the FDCs on the outside of the building, and if there are standpipes, we will charge them as well in order to have access to pressurized water without having to hump 16000' of bullshit up 4 flights of stairs. We use our own hose and nozzles, not that crap you might see in a cabinet. That's crap and not what we need and god knows when it's been tested and so forth.

If there IS an actual fire, we'll take any information from the folks on duty can give us, but we do not expect them to know everything and we UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES want ANYONE but us going back into a building that is compromised. We are trained in high-rise tactics and aren't going to place anyone in a situation that will be detrimental to themselves or anyone else.

In addition, if exit paths are compromised, there may be a time when we expect people to shelter in place and we will come get them.

In addition, two hotel fires well-known and referenced in the fire service:
NIOSH report for a 1994 multiple firefighter fatality in a Memphis, TN hotel.
MGM Grand

I hope this was helpful. If you have more questions, post them here or memail me.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 1:12 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I used to work on the front desk of a 6-storey, 100 room hotel in Sydney.

We had "fire training" (some company was contracted to come in, show us where the fire extinguishers were, and get us to practice using this electronic extinguisher to put out a fire on a TV screen). The most memorable thing about that training was being instructed, in the event of a bomb threat, to search the building for the bomb (again - 6 storeys, 100 rooms) before alerting police or conducting an evacuation. Yep.

I only know of the fire extinguisher being used once, when an electrical fault set fire to a dishwasher and one of my co-workers put it out. However, we had smoke detectors go off probably once a fortnight. Usually this was from people smoking, although on one occasion someone misunderstood the microwave settings, set it to defrost some bread for two hours instead of two minutes, and then went to take a shower.

When a smoke alarm in a room was triggered, it set off an alarm in the back office. Whoever was on reception would contact a porter by radio and give them the room number to go check it out. I think we had about two minutes to manually switch it off if it was a false alarm. If not, the alarm would start a ringing noise, just on the floor affected by the smoke detector. At this point, people would start to call reception, and we would let them know if it was a false alarm or if they needed to take the fire stairs. If we had enough staff, we would send porters to knock on the doors of the affected floor and let people know what was happening.

At this point, we would have to wait for the fire brigade to arrive, check it out and turn off the alarm. If it was a false alarm, we could manually stop it from progressing to the next stage, which was a loud whooping noise throughout the entire building and a recorded message telling people to evacuate. I've only seen this happen once (the microwave incident). This was very early in the morning, and the only staff were a night auditor and a security guard, so they weren't able to check the cause of the alarm in time to stop the evacuation. I arrived at 7 and found a bunch of people still standing on the street in their pyjamas, waiting for the fire brigade to let them back in. We only had two disabled-access rooms, and I'm not sure if the night auditor thought to call/check them, though we did have note in our computer if a guest was disabled. In our training, I remember we were told to wait for the fire brigade to assist guests in wheelchairs.

There would have been a headcount done based on our number of checked-in guests, but I'm certain that at night, it would be an unusually well-staffed hotel to have enough staff to physically go from room to room waking guests. (This may not be true in countries where hotel staff are paid lower wages than in Australia - I'm always amazed at how many people are on shift in South-East Asian hotels.)
posted by jaynewould at 4:07 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am very grateful for these answers. Thank you! This was very helpful and now I need to process all this information.
posted by 99percentfake at 3:16 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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