Over 30 years ago, the deadliest blaze in Las Vegas history ignited at the MGM Grand Casino and Hotel. The hotel was built without fire sprinklers (except in the cash-counting room), had manual fire alarms only, and many design defects (including in the elevators, ceiling tiles, and a ventilation system that was improperly installed–which led to deadly smoke infiltrating the entire building). As a local newspaper reported, “A visiting firefighter from Illinois breakfasting in an adjacent coffee shop also tried to help a security guard find an extinguisher to put out the electrical fire, but they couldn’t locate one.”

The result was 87 people lost their lives in the MGM Grand fire. A sprinkler system would have cost less than $200,000 but the hotel appealed for a waiver.

Additionally, victims of the fire filed 1,327 lawsuits against 118 companies. As the article above explains, “money from all the companies went into a $223 million settlement fund that was distributed to the victims and their families within three years of the fire.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Nevada instituted some of the strictest building and fire codes in the world. 

But for a terrible tragedy, it is unlikely that the building codes would have changed or whether owners of existing structures would have paid the high costs to retrofit their properties against fire/smoke. While Las Vegas and the rest of the United States has been fairly lucky since the 1980′s by mandating safety devices and proper building standards, we are long overdue for instituting a simple policy for identifying and planning to assist individuals with functional/access needs during an emergency or evacuation.

While some cities have developed emergency evacuation assistance programs (like Miami-Dade) and some schools have developed special needs identification programs (like Montgomery County, MD Community College), it still is not a standard procedure for hotels, motels, exhibition halls, stadia, or other highly-trafficked buildings/campuses to identify those who require special assistance during emergencies and evacuations.

My policy recommendation is that every state, county, city, and community pass a law requiring all hotels/motels, residence halls, high-rise buildings, and other high-occupancy buildings/structures/campuses to distribute a single, double-sided 5×7 inch paper card to all visitors that includes emergency response information as well as a form for visitors to self-identify as needing assistance during emergencies and evacuations.

The front would provide information about emergency evacuation, shelter-in-place, and lockdown procedures (similar to the information required by OSHA in 29 CFR 1910.38). See my example below:

The back of the index card would be a form for individuals requesting special assistance during an emergency or evacuation to fill out and submit to the establishment. See example below:

These are ONLY EXAMPLES for demonstrative purposes, please do not use them. Each facility should consult with trained professionals to determine what information they require and determine processes, policies, procedures, and protocols for providing assistance or communicating the need to provide assistance to first responders for individuals who self-identify. Without a doubt, there ought to be many changes to the cards I developed above. There may be additional information that should be collected, different wording (I created these in about 10 minutes and am making no guarantees about the best way to ask for this sensitive info), a disclaimer regarding privacy policy, and better presentation (I’m no graphics designer).

The benefits of implementing this regulation wouldn’t just be helpful for technological or natural hazards, but manmade incidents as well (such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks–including attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel). During the terror attacks, those with mobility limitations would have been unknown to the hotel staff and there might not have been a process to communicate with first responders the locations and assistance needed by those within the crime scene.

As a society, we shouldn’t wait for tragedy to strike before we decide to improve our preparedness/readiness. While the MGM Grand fire led to extreme changes in fire protection, if we can proactively use regulations and laws to prevent future deaths/injuries (especially for those who can’t help themselves in an emergency), we have an obligation to do so.

In 1992, twelve years after the MGM Grand fire, a small fire broke out at the Riviera Hotel during a national conference for those with spina bifida–a mobility limiting birth defect. The hundreds of individuals in wheelchairs in the convention center were safe–the sprinklers put the fire out in less than a single minute.

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Additional resources for emergency preparedness for individuals with functional and access needs: