This week, a friend of mine was staying in a hotel in the US. In the middle of the night, the hotel had to be evacuated due to a serious fire in a stairwell. It turns out that the fire was started deliberately – my friend rather freaked out, sensibly decided to check out and move elsewhere, lest the arsonist was still staying in the hotel and tried again the night after.
This unsettling episode serves to remind us of our vulnerability when we put our sleeping selves in the hands of others. We tend to assume that all hotels are maintained correctly, have working fire alarm, fire prevention and fire suppressing systems in place, but this assumption puts us at risk everytime we turn off the bedside light.
Hotels in the UK are generally compliant, with a few exceptions, of usually financially hard pressed hoteliers attempting to cut corners with safety. Deaths as a result of fire have fallen consistently since the devastating Boxing day fire at The Rose and Crown, in Saffron Waldon in 1969, which killed 11 hotel residents. This incident was the final catalyst for the introduction of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and subsequent laws which have seen public buildings in the UK amongst the safest on the planet.
However, when you travel abroad you put yourself in your most vulnerable, unconscious state, at the mercy of systems and practices that are perhaps not as stringent. With this in mind, next time you check into an unfamiliar hotel – whether its at home or abroad, carry out your own miniature fire risk assessment.
Firstly, consider the fact that the hotel layout is probably totally alien. Do you know the route through the lobby to the outside? Do you have to pass through chairs and tables, which might be obscured in a fire? Spend a few moments familiarising yourself with the exit path from your room to the nearest fire escape. Walk down the corridor and count the number of doors between you and the exit. Almost without exception, we ignore the information on the back of hotel room doors with exit information, its not a decorative feature – read it, in the middle of the night in a smoke filled hallway, you might wish you had.
Have a quick look around for the fire alarm detectors. Do they seem to be well maintained? For example, are they painted over, blocked or otherwise obscured? Most fire alarm control panels are located in the reception area, have a look. Is it beeping or flashing? This is an indication that there might be a fault which hasn’t been attended to. Find a fire extinguisher and check the servicing date on the label. Is it within the last 12 months and do the appliances look fit for the job? These simple checks give you a good indication as to the hotel owners attitude to your safety.
If you aren’t happy with any aspect of the hotel’s safety system, bring it up at reception, or do as my friend did and go elsewhere whilst you have the chance.