The Childers Backpackers Fire happened in 2000 and it had a profound effect on me as a hostel owner. 15 backpackers died and many were injured. Since 2000, there have been many other hostel fires so fire safety is something every hostel owner should pay attention to. In this week's post, I want to share some ways to make your hostel safer for guests in the event of a fire.
⚠️ IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: No advice or statement in this blog post (or the associated video above) should be construed as a substitution for any locally required professional certification and inspection of the life safety systems in your hostel. As stated in the video, you should research the legal requirements of life safety systems in your jurisdiction and follow all applicable laws.
The point of this video is to get hostel owners to become knowledgeable and competent about the requirements and safe operation of all life safety systems in their hostel so they always know these systems are in working order and will know what to do in an emergency.
If available and applicable in your region, you should only allow licensed and certified fire safety experts to do the required maintenance and inspections of these systems. Your knowledge and increased awareness of life safety should supplement the periodic inspections done by outside inspectors but never interfere with their work or equipment. Do not open or tamper with life safety equipment unless you are qualified and certified to do so.
Now, you may say, that the year 2000 was a long time ago. Unfortunately, fires in hostels are still happening so fire safety is definitely still something hostel owners should continually think about.
Of course, no hostel owner wants to have a fire in their building. Aside from the emotional toll of having hostel guests get injured or die in your hostel, a fire with a loss of life will very likely bankrupt and shut down your business.
But you say I have insurance to cover me in this situation.
Well, I sure hope you do, but have you checked the limits of your coverage on your insurance policy? Most commercial insurance policies top out at about $2 million in coverage, but each wrongful death claim can easily total more than a million dollars. Now it's really awful to think about this, but at least the legal system (at least in the US) bases the value of human life on things like the future earnings that the deceased would have provided to their family. In other words, the younger your deceased guest is the more a wrongful death lawsuit could potentially cost you because they would have had more years to be gainfully employed.
Not only that, if it can be shown that you were negligent in maintaining the life safety systems in your hostel or getting the proper professional inspections and/or certifications, you can be criminally charged in some countries.
In the United States, this is called depraved heart murder, or "indifference to human life". It's a type of murder where a person acts with depraved indifference to human life, such that their action (or inaction) results in death despite the individual not explicitly intending to kill.
So, as you can see, this is serious stuff, even though hostels are a fun way to make money...
(and in some cases, a lot of money, and that will only make things more difficult for you in the event of a lawsuit)
you always want to be able to show and prove that you proactively maintain the life safety systems in your hostel. We'll talk about that more later in this blog post.
So let's start with the smoke detector. I know life safety standards vary throughout the world, but if you don't have this simple cheap device throughout your hostel, you should be very afraid. In countries with developed fire and life safety regulations, smoke detectors will be connected to a central alarm panel and you'll be required to have this panel maintained and routinely inspected by a licensed fire alarm contractor.
But, even if you don't have this requirement where your hostel is located, you should at least install individual smoke detectors throughout your hostel and in each of your sleeping rooms, inspect them and maintain them. Don't trust that somebody will wake up and shout fire. In many cases, a slow-growing fire will fill the room with smoke and CO2 and your guests will be rendered unconscious and unable to wake up to shout "Fire"!
Seriously, I don't care if your hostel is located in the poorest country in the world. If you're running a hostel business, you're assuming some responsibilities for the life safety of your guests. Get some smoke detectors (I've seen many hostels in developing countries without this basic level of protection). And, if you can't find affordable ones in your country, let me know. And I will order some $5 ones from amazon.com and I'll send them to you.
I mentioned them before, but if you can afford it, or if it's required where your hostel is located, get the best fire sprinkler system that you can. This is the absolute best way to reduce the possibility of a fire-related death in your hostel. Personally, I opted to upgrade my hostel sprinkler system to NFPA 13 standard. In the US, the national fire protection agency publishes these standards. And the highest level is called NFPA 13, which means that the building is protected and considered fully-sprinklered to provide life safety and protection to the facility and its contents. This means that there is fire sprinkler coverage through the entire building, including the unoccupied spaces such as attics and closets.
Previously, my hostel was only partially-sprinklered to provide life safety and a moderate level of building protection. This was called NFPA 13R which only provided protection so that the occupants could escape in the event of a fire. It was basically just in the stairway. Either way, given how many people we host in our hostels, I'm a huge proponent of fire sprinklers for hostels.
Sometimes emergency egress is just as important, if not more important. After watching this video, I would like to suggest that you visit each room of your hostel and imagine yourself trapped in that room by smoke or fire at the main door. Look out the window. Can you get out there? I remember reports in the Childer's Backpacker Hostel fire that said that some of the windows had security bars that prevented guests from escaping the fire.
So how tall is your hostel? Is there a fire escape? If so, you should routinely inspect the fire escape and make sure that it's secured to the building. It sits there day after day, just exposed to the weather and the last thing that you want in the event of a fire is to get a bunch of weight on it and have it fail during an emergency. Uou want to make sure it's not rusted and the extension ladder will easily extend to the ground and you know how to operate it. In some cities like San Francisco, building owners are required to have their fire escapes professionally inspected once a year and get a certificate. However, this is not strictly enforced. So it's really up to the building owners to stay on top of this requirement.
You can bet that if there's ever a fire in your hostel, the authorities will soon arrive on the scene and they will make sure that these requirements were fulfilled and they will point fingers at you if you failed to do something.
Routine Owner Inspections
By now you can likely tell that it's not enough to just merely hope that your hostel's life safety systems will perform in the event of an emergency. You will need to be able to prove that you are knowledgeable about these systems and you have thought about life safety and maintain these systems over the years.
So how do you do this? Well, first you should make a written inventory of all of the life safety measures that you have in your hostel. What's required in your life safety inventory will depend on the size of your hostel and more likely the regulations that are applicable to the city or town where your hostel is located.
Don't rely on somebody from the city to come knocking on your door and tell you what these requirements are. Do your research, ask questions of city officials and be aware of the life safety systems in other hostels and ask other hostel owners questions about their requirements and the choices that they've made for their life safety.
By the way, if you're nervous about asking questions of city officials about your hostel, I'll include some tips on how to do this carefully in the Hostel Professionals Library.
Here are some of the things that I've always included in the life safety inventory at my hostel:
- Sprinkler system (Professionally inspected annually)
- Fire alarm system (Professionally inspected annually)
- Smoke detectors (in my hostel these were separate and supplemental to the smoke detectors connected to the certified fire alarm system)
- Fire extinguishers (Professionally inspected annually)
- Smoke seals on doors - Often overlooked because in a fire it's often not the fire that actually kills people. It's they become overcome with smoke. They're not able to find the exits and they just can't find their way out of the building.)
- Fire escapes
- Emergency lighting
- Fire blanket in the kitchen
- Emergency egress signage
Now, it's true that not every guest reads the signs. You've probably seen these in hotel rooms and you don't read them. But in a hostel, you hope that some of those safety-geeks will actually take time to read it and they will be able to shout out instructions and help others in the event of an emegency.
Now, there may have been some other items that I forgot about on this list, but you get the idea.
Next, you want to create an inspection form that will remind you or your manager about each item and its location, and then decide how often you want to inspect these items. The more often you inspect them the more easily you'll be able to show that you took fire safety seriously when the fire inspectors, insurance companies, and others begin pointing fingers at you. However, in my opinion, if you make the inspection, do too often, you won't be able to keep it up or your manager won't take it seriously. The last thing that you want to do is have your manager just check all the boxes and be like, "Yeah. Yeah. It's all good. Fine, fine." For me, a monthly inspection feels about right.
Note: Keep in mind, these owner inspections are for you and are not in place of any required inspections by city officials or inspections from required contracted life safety companies. No one should care more about life safety in your hostel than you do, so these inspections will provide important intermediate awareness of your life safety systems between the official inspections.
These inspections are your job, or you can delegate them to your manager, but I would personally not delegate this to your housekeepers or your front desk staff. You want someone who really understands the gravity and the importance of these inspections. That said it's totally okay if you want you or your manager to bring along a helper for the inspection. In fact, it's quite helpful when it comes to smoke detectors that are located up on the ceiling.
I've always done these inspections on a paper form. I'm not a fan of online forms for these inspections. I feel like there are small differences in the handwriting and the notes in the margins that increase the authenticity of the form. You really can't tell the intent or the nuance of someone when they actually just click a box on an online form.
Now, if you get something that fails in your inspection, do not simply write on the inspection form and call it done. In these cases, the inspection cannot be completed at this time and you'll need to postpone the finalization of the inspection (unless there is a deadline imposed by an outside regulatory agency) and deal with that issue immediately! Like in the next day or so. Then you can continue the inspection and document what you did to correct the deficiency in the margin.
Now, why do I do this? Well, I've seen instances where the inspections are getting done on a monthly basis and the failed inspection item is dutifully documented month after month, and the problem is never fixed! The last thing you want after a fire is to have documentation that provides evidence that you knew there was a problem, and you did nothing about it. Remember, you want these inspection forms to help you, not hurt you.
Finally, after you or your manager have done the inspection, take a picture of it or scan it. Get a copy of the inspection offsite. You do not want to file your paper inspection form in a filing cabinet at the hostel, because, after a fire, you don't want to have all of the evidence of your properly maintained life safety systems in ashes.
So would you like to see more about fire and life safety in future posts?
I have a lot to say about these topics including choosing the right smoke detectors, fireproof paint, and devices that will automatically turn off your stove in the kitchen when the fire alarm sounds, fire pre-planning with your staff, and a lot more.
So let me know what you want to learn about next in the comments below.
Sorry. This was such a grim post this week, but it is really, really important.
I hope you agree.