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HEALTH & SAFETY: FIRE & DISASTER SAFETY

IN YOUR ROOM

Everyone should know what to do when faced with a panic situation in a public place. Since Las Vegas is pretty much one gigantic public place, with crowds everywhere you go, let's cover the basics of personal safety and the unique way it is applied to the gigantic hotels and casinos in town.

The sprinklers you see in almost every high-rise in the nation are there, in part, because of horrific blaze that happened in Las Vegas in 1980. A small fire smoldered for hours at the original MGM Grand (now Bally's) and eventually erupted into an inferno that killed more than 80 people, many of whom were trapped in their rooms.

After that fire the US Congress enacted laws that mandated sprinkler and fire safety systems in all high-rises - life-saving systems that weren't required at the MGM Grand at that time.

Today the hotels in Las Vegas are among the safest in the world, but that doesn't mean you can ignore the dangers. All of these fire safety systems are mechanical and/or controlled by computers and although many will say they are infallible, that kind of thinking has led to disaster in the past.

Start your safety preparedness before you leave home by packing a small flashlight. Although the hotels are equipped with emergency lighting, it may fail or be obscured by smoke so a flashlight could be instrumental in helping you get to the exits.

After arriving in your room take the time to identify where the emergency stairwells are located. Count the number of doorways from your room to the stairwell and walk the route to familiarize yourself with any hallway twists or other obstacles. During a fire, the halls may be filled with blinding smoke but you'll be able to feel your way along the path, counting off doorways by touch until you reach the one that will take you to safety.

Also take a moment to identify where your room is situated in the overall scheme of the hotel tower and how you can distinguish it from the thousands of other rooms in that tower. While knowing your room number will be helpful, knowing the placement of that room can help direct rescuers to you in the event of an emergency. For instance: are you in the north or south end of the tower; are you facing the Strip or the freeway; how many rooms are between you and the elevator or stairwell.

As with car alarms, many people have gotten blasé about fire alarms in public places. Don't be. If you're in your room and the fire alarm sounds, grab your room key and head for the door. It may be tempting to collect your other belongings but that temptation can cost you your life. During the MGM Grand fire in 1980, several people were found in an elevator bay with their suitcases - despite the billowing smoke they had taken the time to pack and that decision proved fatal.

Be sure to feel the door and knob first to check for heat but use the back of your hand, not your palm. If there is fire on the other side they could be so hot that they could cause injury, which could impede your ability to make a safe escape later. If the door is warm don't open it. There may be fire on the other side. If it is cool to the touch open the door carefully and head immediately to the emergency stairwells. Do not use the elevator as these systems may fail during a fire, leaving you trapped or worse. At the MGM Grand in 1980 the heat from the fire was so intense that it melted elevator cables, sending them crashing to the ground with people on board.

If the halls are filled with smoke you should try to crawl to the nearest exit as the freshest air will be near the floor. But if the smoke is too dense even at floor level turn around and go back to your room.

Stairwells are supposed to be constructed to keep smoke and fire out but in many situations, especially when there is damage to the structure, stairwells act as chimneys funneling smoke to the top of the building. If you arrive at the stairwell and find it too dense with smoke, go back to your room.

If you find yourself trapped in your room by smoke or flames you have a quick decision to make between calling for help or sealing the room. Which you do first totally depends on the situation.

If smoke is coming into your room you should try to seal it up with wet towels before making the phone call. In the time it takes you to see if the phone is working and relate your situation to someone if it is the smoke could overwhelm you and you will not be physically able to seal the room and save your own life. Take the time first to seal the bottom of the doorway with wet towels and check the air conditioning vents as well. If you see smoke coming in through them, stuff more wet towels into the openings.

Filling the bathtub (if your room has one) with water may also be helpful.

Once you have accomplished this, go to the phone and see if it is still in operation, giving anyone who answers your room number, location in the hotel tower as mentioned earlier, and a brief rundown of how dire your situation is including injuries if there are any.

If the smoke has not begun filtering in your room make the call first and then start placing the wet towels around the doors and vents.

Although most modern hotel rooms in Vegas do not have windows that open, many have vents at the top or bottom of the sills that you can open to let in a little fresh air. It may be tempting but do not break the windows. Fire needs oxygen to survive and it will seek the best available source, thereby drawing the flames and smoke toward you.

In addition, most fire departments are not equipped with ladders that can reach much past the seventh floor of a high-rise so if help is going to come it's going to come through your door and not the window.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don't panic. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is but the number one thing you have to do in an emergency situation is stay calm. Panicking will lead to bad decisions and bad decisions will lead to disaster.

IN PUBLIC AREAS

Las Vegas casinos are among the safest public spaces in the world. With high-tech fire suppression systems and the security cameras covering every square inch, you're probably safer sitting at a slot machine than you are in your car on the way to the supermarket.

But as with all technology-based systems such as these there is always the risk for a failure, especially in the event of a catastrophic event such as a terrorist attack, something Las Vegas is certainly not immune to. While the odds of something like that happening to you are miniscule covering a few basic safety guidelines could be lifesaving in the event the odds turn against you.

Las Vegas casinos are huge places, often with more than 100,000 square-feet of slot machines, table games, bars, lounges, and people - lots of people. It's easy to get turned around and lost even on a normal day especially if you're visiting a place for the first time.

But most casinos have some sort of easily identifiable landmark that you can use as a touchstone in the event of an emergency - something that is visible from most areas of the room. Whether it is a statue, a bar, or even a grand light fixture above the table games, take a moment when you enter a casino to notice what that landmark may be and how it relates to the main exit.

Taking a moment to stop and look at the maps found inside the main entrance of most large casinos can also help. You don't have to memorize it - you'd be surprised how much you'll remember even with a quick glance.

The natural inclination for most people during an emergency is to head back out the way the came in. During the tragic nightclub fire in Rhode Island years ago most of the crowd headed toward the single front door when other emergency exits were closer and unblocked. As you're wandering around looking for that winning slot machine take the time to make a mental note of where the alternate exits are located.

People have grown very complacent regarding alarms. True, most of the time if the sirens and strobe lights go off while you're in a casino it will be a false alarm, but the few minutes that you stand around waiting for someone to tell you if there is an actual threat can make the difference between life and death. If the alarm goes off, head for the exits. If it is a false alarm, the slot machines will still be there when you get back.

And again here, it's worth mentioning the old "don't panic" mantra. Easier said than done, right? If you're in a crowded casino with thousands of other people and something catastrophic happens there will be a panic - it's probably the only sure bet you can make in Vegas. But by following the few steps listed above you'll be armed with knowledge that most others won't be, allowing you to avoid participating in the panic.

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