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Safe or Secure? Can your hotel room be both?

By Joan Killough-Miller, Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Hotel guests remain blissfully unaware of the concerns that occupy April (Hammond) Berkol ‘85 (B.S., ME), ’88 (M.S., FPE) in her role as director of environmental health, and fire and life safety for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. The lobby doors glide open at a touch. The Jacuzzi feels heavenly after that hellish plane trip, and after dinner, a sumptuous dessert cart beckons. Apart from bolting the door before falling into bed and glancing at the posted emergency escape route, few vacationers give a second thought to their safety—or their security. Even fewer are aware that the two can be in conflict.

With responsibility for 750 hotels in 80 countries (some with more than 1,200 rooms), along with Starwood-owned spa resorts and timeshare properties, April Berkol holds a lot of lives in her hands.

“Besides our regular hotel guests—‘heads in beds,’ in industry vernacular—on any given day you can have a wedding, a corporate event, a professional convention, and several smaller conferences going on at the same time,” she says. Factor in Starwood’s nearly 130,000 employees and the numerous contractors, service people, and delivery trucks that pass through each day, and the result is a mind-boggling population density with wide-open access.

Sometimes the hazards experienced by the lodging industry make headlines, such as the 1976 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Sometimes they drive change; catastrophic fires of the 1970s and 1980s—including the 1980 inferno at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas—led to the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, which made fire sprinklers standard in high-rise hotels. And sometimes they provide incredible challenges, as when terrorists target the worldwide hospitality industry, evidenced by bombings at the JW Marriott Hotel in South Jakarta and the Taba Hilton in Egypt.

Behind the scenes

But not all hazards are obvious to the average hotel guest. Berkol’s workday can include managing the removal of underground storage tanks on land that once housed a gas station; ensuring that hot tubs and decorative fountains are properly maintained to prevent contamination by Legionnella bacteria; and developing training programs that teach kitchen workers not to use the meat knife on the fish or the fish knife on the cake, and remind desk clerks not to call out guests’ room numbers to protect them from intruders. Even suicide is an issue: because fire regulations require high-rise hotel rooftops to be accessible for rescue and refuge, they can also attract unhappy people looking for a place to end it all.

Berkol’s job is to set corporate policy and procedures for fire and life safety programs, and to monitor compliance. She also works with Starwood’s real estate group to review designs for new hotels and oversees environmental inspections of properties designated for new builds, sales, and acquisitions. But, she says, the human element of her industry is as important as the infrastructure; hotel guests are in an unfamiliar environment and can’t be trained to use the protection systems. So Berkol ensures that each hotel has crisis management plans in place, with personnel who are prepared to handle emergencies.

And, as a true hands-on manager, she shows up for inspections in flat-soled shoes and long pants so she can climb to the top of the elevator machine room or into the bowels of a building. She will also clamber up to the highest point of a building to see if rooftops are being neglected.

Post 9/11 challenges

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left the hotel industry with both financial and security challenges. In articles in fire protection and hospitality journals, Berkol has addressed the potential conflicts between life safety and personal security. “Life safety means enabling you to quickly get away from something that might harm you,” she explains. “But security tends to restrict people from coming and going freely.”

Stairwells provide a classic illustration of where safety and security intersect. A firesafety engineer sees the stairs as an evacuation route. But a robber, rapist, or terrorist can exploit that easy access to all levels of the building. Under certain conditions, fire regulations permit stair doors to allow entry to the stairwell but prevent re-entry onto guestroom floors. In a fire

situation, this could trap people in a smoke-filled stairway by preventing them from getting back onto the corridor to seek another escape route. Some solutions include permitting access on alternate floors or every third floor or installing locking devices that revert to the open mode in the event of a power failure or emergency.

Some measures designed to enhance safety and security, such as closed circuit TV cameras on guestroom floors, are considered too intrusive. On rare occasions—for example, visits from important dignitaries or major political conventions—hotels have to restrict access and install metal detectors and X-ray machines as temporary measures to ensure the safety of all guests.

Berkol recognizes that the safety and security of many people is in her hands. “The weight of that responsibility is very great, if you think of it in those terms,” she acknowledges. But, she adds with an easy laugh, “I try not to think of it that way too often. It can hamstring you!”

April Berkol is a member of numerous organizations, including the National Fire Protection Association, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Construction Specifications Institute.

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 13:20 EST
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