Professionalism/The MGM Grand Hotel Fire

The MGM Grand Hotel Fire happened on November 21, 1980, at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Paradise, Nevada. It is currently the third worst hotel fire in the United States. Eighty-seven people died and there were over seven hundred injuries. The fire was able to quickly spread in the lower floors partly due to a lack of sprinklers. Smoke inhalation was the main cause of death, and smoke traveled to the upper floors through the vents and structural openings.

The MGM Grand fire as seen from Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road.

Most of the damage and casualties from the fire could have been prevented had the hotel followed the current building codes of the city. The hotel had been told it needed improvements by fire marshals but ultimately was accepted by the building inspector. The problems allowing the hotel to pass through code stem from a lack of professionalism with the building inspector's inability to exercise his professional judgment in the face of management.

What HappenedEdit

MGM Grand hotel was a luxury hotel with a casino, showroom, fancy shops, and restaurants. It had 2,000 rooms and 26 floors. At the time of the fire there were around 5,000 people in the hotel. [1]

The fire began between 7:05 am and 7:10 am at the Deli, a snack shop on the ground floor. It was started by electric ground fault behind a wall near the serving station. The Deli was closed at the time but the fire was noticed the supervisor of a marble and tile setting crew examining the shop broken tiles. The supervisor quickly notified security and attempted to contain the fire with an extinguisher and hose line. Several other employees had attempted to help put out the fire but were unsuccessful due to how intense the flames had become. [2]

The view of the MGM Grand Fire looking northeast from I-15. Smoke rises above the hotel.

Evacuation was started at 7:15 and the fire department was called at 7:16. Even though the fire department was quickly called, the fire had spread too quickly for 544 fire fighters to stop it. The flammable materials on the casino floor and adhesive in the ceiling tiles caused the fire to spread through the football field sized casino in under 20 seconds. [3]

The fire was actually contained to only the second floor thanks to the quick response from the fire deparment, but smoke quickly rose throughout the rest of the building through ventilation ducts. The residents were unable to evacuate the building due to the fire on the lower floors, and were trapped on the upper floors. Many were able to evacuate through windows with ladders provided by the fire department. Others needed to travel to the roof to be picked up by helicopters. [1]

Ultimately the Grand Hotel Fire resulted in 87 deaths and 700 injuries, and at the time was the second worst hotel fire in the United States. Reports had quickly surfaced that there 83 building code violations, design flaws, and installation errors that contributed to the fire and smoke spreading. There were over one thousand lawsuits against 118 companies, totaling in reparations over $223 million. Most of the damages was directed to MGM hotel who was penalized $105 million, but companies involved with the hotel construction were charged as well. The sprinklers which would have prevented the damages entirely would have costed MGM $192,000, but their absence resulted in an estimated billions of economical damages. [4]


MGM Grand HotelEdit

During the initial construction of the hotel, the owners planned for the Deli to be open for 24 hours a day. With a 24 hours a day schedule, the builders were not required to install an automated fire extinguishing method. In the case of a fire, the employee(s) on shift were expected to put out the fire manually and/or immediately notify the fire department. Although the Deli’s hours were eventually changed to a non-24 hours a day schedule, no automated fire extinguishing methods were added to the Deli. If there had been a sprinkler system in the Deli, the likelihood of the fire spreading outside of the Deli and becoming life-threatening would have been considerably reduced.[1] In contrast to the Deli area, the automatic sprinkler systems installed in protected areas of the casino performed to standard and halted the spread of the fire in those areas. On the Casino level, fire and smoke developed rapidly due to the building arrangement and the lack of adequate fire barriers.[1] As the smoke spread throughout the Casino, unprotected vertical openings allowed the smoke to spread to the high-rise tower. These openings were in the elevator hoist-ways and building shafts.[1] The hotel’s interior stairways, smoke proof towers, and exit passageways that were substandard and delayed the smoke from quickly exiting the high-rise tower.[1] The smoke also spread through the ventilation systems, heating and air conditioning equipment. This equipment was not found to have smoke detection systems installed to shut down the systems upon detection.[1] At the time of construction, then Fire marshal Carl Lowe pressured the owners to install more sprinkler systems as safety precaution. Orvin Engineering Company also notified the owners that “the liability of all the unsprinklered areas in this building should be a concern to your corporation.” Despite these recommendations, the MGM chairman at the time, Fred Benninger, decided not to install sprinkler systems in the Deli and other areas [5].

Clark County Fire DepartmentEdit

Former Fire Marhsall Carl Lowe, who initially pressured MGM owners to install more sprinklers, resigned in 1975 due to the outside pressures preventing him from doing his job (lasvegassun). Lowe preferred to lose his position as Fire marshal than to keep it without integrity. In response to the tragedy, Lowe said, "All they wanted to know was what the code stated. A fireman can see a lot more than the average citizen. But with the builders, all they saw were dollar signs."(lasvegassun)

Clark County Building DepartmentEdit

The Clark County Building Department was responsible for enforcing the fire safety codes. [6] Stricter code for sprinkler systems was implemented in 1974, the year following the completion of the hotel's construction.[7] To avoid installing sprinklers in the areas indicated by the Fire marshal and Orvin Engineering Company, the owners sought relief from Clark County Building Department. The building director at the time, John Pisciotta, decided that the sprinkler system requirements in the fire code did not apply to the hotel and casino.[8] Pisciotta allowed for the hotel to be "grandfathered in" to the new standards adopted in 1974.[7] When questioned on his interpretation of the fire code, John Pisciotta said "You can make suggestions all day long. You can't enforce anybody's suggestion unless it's the code. It's that simple."[9] With the approval of the building director, the owners of MGM decided to meet the minimum requirements, installing sprinkler systems in the basement, showrooms, and the 26th floor high roller casino that was later converted to meetings rooms.[10] Pisciotta succumbed to outside pressures and did not enforce stricter safety precautions with his interpretation of the fire code. Pisciotta’s response demonstrates the lack of autonomy experts in their field have when exposed to significant outside pressures, which in this case was the hotel’s management.


Stricter Fire Safety LawsEdit

In response to the MGM Grand Fire, a board of fire safety, appointed by the governor of Nevada and consisting of fire safety experts, was constructed to update fire safety regulations.[11] Stricter fire safety codes where implemented soon after with the 1981 NFPA Life Safety Code. [1] Perhaps the largest fault of the spread of fire was the lack of an adequate number of sprinklers, of which David Demers, who investigated the fire, stated: "If sprinklers had been provided in the area of The Deli and its serving station, the potential for a fire developing beyond the incipient stage and becoming life threatening would have been considerably reduced." [1] New regulations required for hotels that every corridor was equipped with fire sprinklers and each room have at least one fire sprinkler above a door opening into an exit corridor. Additionally, automatic sprinklers became required for areas of public assembly.[11] All hotels that were taller than 55 feet needed to be retrofitted for sprinklers, and all future hotels above three stories needed sprinkler systems installed.[4]

Fire Protection TodayEdit

Today, both the Charles County and Las Vegas Fire Departments have an Insurance Service Office (ISO) class 1 rating, representing the lowest level of risk of fire. [12] Additionally, The Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Department is an accredited agency by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI).[13]

Similar CasesEdit

Las Vegas Hilton FireEdit

On February 10, 1981, another hotel fire occurred, this time at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. While the MGM Grand Hotel fire motivated progress towards updating fire safety codes, the Hilton fire accelerated it. Clark County Fire Department spokesman Bob Leinbach stated that "That (Hilton fire) really motivated the panel," referring to a board of fire safety that was assigned to improve fire safety regulations. [14]

Winecoff Hotel FireEdit

The Winecoff Hotel Fire happened on December 7, 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia. The fire killed 119 people and injured 90, and is recognized as the deadliest hotel fire to occur in the United States. The building had continually passed inspections, and was classified as "fireproof;" however, there were notable problems. Unprotected vertical openings in the building as well as delays in detecting fire and alerting the fire department allowed the fire to spread and cause harm[15]

Decision TrapsEdit

Overconfidence TrapEdit

The owners of the MGM Grand Hotel fell into an overconfidence trap when deciding whether to add sprinklers. Based on information present in the investigative report of the fire, it is evident that the owners of the MGM Grand Hotel were overconfident in predicting the risk of fire. The investigative report found that there were a lack of enough adequate fire barriers, sprinklers, or exits. It was also found that there was no evidence of any sort of fire emergency plan. [1]


Experts are valuable due to their judgement. When an expert sets aside their better judgement in favor of something else, they are no longer acting as a professional. Pisciotta, the building director, understood that the code was up to interpretation and that he was able to either pass or fail MGM Grand Hotel. The fire safety professionals, such as Carl Lowe, were in a position to provide expert opinions, but unable to act upon them. The decision rested with Pisciotta and the Clark County Building Department, who ultimately allowed their better judgement to be dominated by hotel management. This situation in many ways is reflective to continuous struggles between managers and experts. In this case, the MGM Grand Hotel represented the manager, putting the financial concerns above safety concerns recognized by fire safety professionals, such as Carl Lowe. The Building Department are in comparison experts that eventually go against their professional judgement.


  1. a b c d e f g h i j Best, R., & Demers, D.P. (1982, January 15). Investigation report on the MGM Grand Hotel fire. National Fire Protection Association.
  2. MGM hotel fire 1980. Retrieved May 4, 2015, from
  3. MGM grand fire las vegas 1980. [Video/DVD] Disaster Chronicles.
  4. a b Mirkhah, A. (November 18, 2010). Lessons from the past: MGM grand fire . Firehouse, , May 5, 2015.
  5. MGM Grand Fire – Lessons Learned From a Tragedy. Comprehensive Fire Protection LLC.
  6. Clark County Building Department. (n.d.).
  7. a b Absence of fire sprinklers at MGM Hotel questioned. (1980, November 27) Lodi News Sentinel.,3212347&hl=en
  8. MGM Grand Fire – Lessons Learned From a Tragedy. Comprehensive Fire Protection LLC.
  9. MGM Hotel Employees Job Hunting. (1980, November 26) Herald-Journal.,5620218&hl=en
  10. MGM Nixed Improved Sprinkler System in ‘73. Las Vegas Sun.
  11. a b Laws of the State of Nevada. (1981).
  12. ISO Class 1 Fire Departments. (n.d.).
  13. Clark County Fire Department. (n.d.). Accredited agency.
  14. Koch, E., & Manning, M. (2000, November 18). MGM Grand fire altered safety standards. Las Vegas Sun News.
  15. McElroy, J.K. (n.d.). The Hotel Winecoff disaster.