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High-rise safety recommendations already in place in Clark County
By Ed Koch
Friday, June 24, 2005 | 11:06 a.m.
Local building experts say a new national report on skyscraper safety calls for a number of changes made in Clark County a quarter of a century ago after killer fires roared through the old MGM -- now Bally's -- and Hilton hotels.
In a report released Thursday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a commerce department agency, recommended overhauling the nation's local building codes to meet more stringent safety standards and encouraged quicker emergency evacuations of high-rise buildings.
The institute's safety panel, examining the collapse of New York's World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, called its report "the most detailed examination of a building failure ever conducted." The document contains 30 recommendations.
While many of those recommended standards have been in place for some time for hotels on the Strip, in downtown Las Vegas and in other jurisdictions throughout the valley, their importance is becoming more widespread with the recent surge in high-rise construction in Southern Nevada.
And, while codes differ slightly among the local jurisdictions to fit their particular needs, communities in Southern Nevada are above the national standard, stemming from changes enacted after the MGM fire in November 1980 killed 84 and a blaze at the Las Vegas Hilton in February 1981 killed eight.
There has not been a fire-related death in a high-rise building locally since the Hilton fire, Clark County Fire Department spokesman Bob Leinbach said, noting that the retrofitting of older high rises with sprinkler systems and other safety features has played a major role in that statistic.
Ken Riddle, deputy chief and fire marshal for the Las Vegas Fire Department, says the city's recent changes to its code include adding condominiums to the high-rise standards as the city undergoes "Manhattanization." There are numerous high rises going up or in the planning stages in or near downtown where developers can no longer get the kind of profit they want from small buildings on expensive real estate.
Also, the city fire department has asked developers to build storage rooms on every 10th floor of new skyscrapers so that firefighters can store extra hoses and air bottles. The Stratosphere Tower has such a feature, Riddle said.
The institute's report also calls for "protected/hardened elevators" that prevent flames from getting into the shaft, and Riddle believes this is something authorities from all local entities should consider adding to their building codes.
Currently, he said, when a fire is detected in a Southern Nevada hotel, the elevators automatically return to the first floor, preventing further use, and can only be reactivated by firefighters using a special key.
"As difficult as it is for some people to have to walk down several flights of stairs, it is more exhaustive for firefighters to climb up those stairs to fight fires," Riddle said. "Use of a (protected/hardened) elevator will enable firefighters to get to a fire a lot faster to put it out."
Local officials say many of the valley's skyscrapers have been built to modern codes based on the International Building Code created by the International Code Council -- a group to whom the institute will make its recommendations.
In some cases, the city and county's minimal codes are surpassed by leaps and bounds when it comes to erecting high rises in Southern Nevada, experts say.
"We are way over-structurally engineered," said Doug Nelson, the Community College of Southern Nevada's Applied Technology program director of building technology. "The design (for earthquakes) is 40 percent over what is called for" in the building and safety codes.
The institute, following its three-year study into why the 110-story trade center towers collapsed after being struck by hijacked airliners, also is urging new design standards for skyscrapers to withstand uncontrolled fires without collapsing.
Southern Nevada officials learned what devastation fire can do to high rises -- and a community's reputation -- in the wake of the MGM and Hilton disasters that also injured hundreds.
Following those fires, a blue ribbon committee of fire and building officials met to change laws requiring sprinklers and alarms in new buildings 75 feet or taller (three-story buildings) and to retrofit such structures, Riddle said.
"It (retrofitting) put us at the forefront of safety for high rises," said Riddle, who fought both the MGM and Hilton blazes.
Ron Lynn, the building official for Clark County's Development Services Department, who sits on the board of directors of the International Code Council, says Southern Nevada still is leading the way in national skyscraper standards.
"We have the most stringent fire and safety codes in the United States," said Lynn, who in 2001 served on the national strategic committee of the National Institute of Standards and Technology,
"We have been a leader in installation of sprinklers, smoke detectors and alarms and in smoke management and education and training. Since retrofitting, we have adopted codes tougher than the national code."
Lynn, a 30-year veteran of building safety, was a building investigator for the Hilton fire and was involved in the creation of the county's retrofit laws.
He now serves as chairman of the Nevada Earthquake Safety Council and says much of today's construction focus is on seismic issues because it is more likely Las Vegas will be hit by an earthquake than a terrorist attack.
"The World Trade Center was a successive collapse, that is one floor collapsing on another," he said, indicating an earthquake can cause the same thing if the building is not constructed properly.
However, Lynn said, "We have seismic joints in our (Southern Nevada) buildings. So, the rest of a building (damaged by an earthquake) will survive intact along that joint" and not collapse the way the World Trade Center did.
Also, Lynn said, one philosophy dating back to the genesis of Las Vegas resort gaming inadvertently has helped bring Las Vegas in line with the institute's suggestions to improve emergency evacuation procedures.
"Our resorts are built to get people out of their rooms and into the casino and other areas of the building to spend their money," Lynn said. "As a result, there are redundant exiting provisions in the resorts. If one exit fails there is always another one close by."
Paul Wilkins, director of the building and safety department for the city of Las Vegas, which has adopted the 2003 International Building Code -- the latest version proposed for a future single worldwide code -- said the institute's report demonstrates the need for constant improvement.
"Back in '81, Las Vegas really took a stand on this, which is why we are state-of-the-art in the building code today," he said. "But we certainly need to improve all of the time to continue to build safe buildings."
The institute's recommendations also include widening emergency stairwells, requiring backup water and power supplies for sprinkler systems and development of new standards for testing steel and concrete framework of buildings.
One of the 43 draft reports that total about 10,000 pages recommends communication systems in skyscrapers similar to the intercoms installed in major Las Vegas hotels that can be used to instruct guests on how to best evacuate the building during an emergency.
"We believe these recommendations are both realistic and achievable within a reasonable period of time, and should greatly improve the way people design, construct, maintain and use buildings, especially high rises," the institute's lead investigator, Shyam Sunder, said of the report in a news release.
"The recommendations also should lead to safer and more effective building evacuations and emergency responses. However, improvements will only be realized if they are acted upon by the appropriate organizations."
CCSN's Nelson, who teaches building code, blueprint reading and architecture, says that as the MGM and Hilton fires "changed all of our attitudes toward high-rise construction, we also have to be ready to accept more change as the (international) code changes every three years.
"Every time we have a tragedy something new goes into effect. Tragedies make you look at stuff -- they make us look into into what caused something to happen and to make sure we are up to date."
Park Place to sell LV Hilton
By Liz Benston
Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003 | 11:05 a.m.
Park Place Entertainment Corp. today agreed to sell its struggling Las Vegas Hilton to an affiliate of Colony Capital LLC for about $280 million.
The transaction is expected to close by the end of June.
Colony Capital, a Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm, said it expects to enter into an agreement with Hilton Hotels Corp. -- which owns the rights to the Hilton brand -- to allow the property to continue using the Hilton name, the companies said.
Colony also said it intends to continue operating the Las Vegas Hilton as a hotel-casino but may build additional structures on vacant land at the site. The future status of the Hilton's staff was unknown.
It was unclear early today whether Colony would retain the Star Trek Experience attraction at the property.
Park Place said it intends to use the proceeds from the sale -- estimated at $256 million after taxes -- to reduce debt. The company expects to report a gain on the sale of about $85 million after taxes, or 28 cents per share, in the quarter in which the transaction closes.
Expenses have exceeded cash flow at the Las Vegas Hilton for at least the past two years, dragging down earnings at Park Place. The company's Chief Executive Wally Barr has expressed interest in selling off non-core assets nationwide.
Colony Capital was attracted to the real estate potential of the Las Vegas Hilton site, according to a source who worked on the transaction and declined to be identified.
The off-Strip resort sits on 56 acres, including undeveloped land that could be used to realign traffic flow and build hotel towers, timeshares, condominiums and even retail, industry insiders said.
"Many of the investors consider this to be a combination of a casino and real estate play," the unnamed source said. "They were looking at ways to use the assets to maximize returns by using the land around the Las Vegas Hilton as the land becomes more valuable. Colony Capital likes to invest in this kind of asset."
"The hotel-casino and the prime real estate on which it sits are truly irreplaceable assets," Colony Capital Chairman and Chief Executive Thomas J. Barrack Jr. said in a statement. "We look forward to this opportunity to further enhance and reposition the property."
Colony Capital representatives could not be reached for further comment.
Colony is one of the world's largest REITs and is known for buying distressed assets. The company bought Resorts International in Atlantic City and sold the Harveys Casino Resorts chain to Harrah's Entertainment Inc. in deals announced in 2001. It was also a suitor of the bankrupt Aladdin resort, which was eventually sold to another party.
Casino entrepreneur Nicholas Ribis, vice chairman of Resorts International, will be a partner in the Las Vegas Hilton acquisition, Park Place said.
Other bidders on the Las Vegas Hilton included Richard Alter, managing director of Financial Capital Investment Co. and another Aladdin suitor; timeshare developer Crescent Heights; and Marriott International, another interested bidder of the Aladdin.
Real estate investor Carl Icahn also was interested in buying the Las Vegas Hilton but forwarded an offer that was too low to make the next round in the bidding process, sources said.