Exploring complex hotels, resorts, and casinos: Fire/life safety

Casinos and resorts are designed for fun and relaxation, but with such projects becoming increasingly complex and high-tech, engineers charged with tackling these structures have challenging work ahead of them in regards to fire/life safety.

Consulting-Specifying Engineer
Trends around hotel, casino, and resort projects are always shifting. According to Triad Consulting Engineers Inc., such customers are showing more interest in renewable, eco-friendly, and sustainable features in the United States and overseas. Courtesy: Triad Consulting Engineers Inc.

Trends around hotel, casino, and resort projects are always shifting. According to Triad Consulting Engineers Inc., such customers are showing more interest in renewable, eco-friendly, and sustainable features in the United States and overseas. Courtesy: Triad Consulting Engineers Inc.


Brant Dillon, Matt Dolan, Jeffrey S. Grove, Ronald R. Regan, Mark Richter, Gregory K. Shino, Toby WhiteBrant Dillon, Director of MEP, Mortenson Construction, Minneapolis
Matt Dolan, PE, LEED AP, Senior Design Engineer, Southland Industries, Las Vegas
Jeffrey S. Grove, PE, Director, JENSEN HUGHES, Las Vegas
Ronald R. Regan, PE, Principal, Triad Consulting Engineers Inc., Morris Plains, N.J.
Mark Richter, PE, LEED AP, Partner, National Residential & Hospitality Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City
Gregory K Shino, PE, Technical Director of Fire Protection Engineering, NV5, Las Vegas
Toby White, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Sr. Fire Engineer, Arup, Boston

According to Triad Consulting Engineers Inc., such customers are showing more interest in renewable, eco-friendly, and sustainable features in the United States and overseas. Courtesy: Triad Consulting Engineers Inc.CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire and life safety system design that you’ve encountered for such facilities? How have you overcome these challenges?

Grove: Many of these hotel-casinos and resorts include many millions of square feet and can be of “super high-rise” designations. The height of these buildings presents the challenge of providing adequate flow and pressure to the top of the building. This can include designing fire pumps in series to boost the pressure necessary to achieve these requirements. Many jurisdictions do not permit the use of fire protection equipment that is not UL-listed due to excessive pressures, thus requiring high-zone fire pumps mid-rise in the building. Jurisdictions in areas such as California and Southern Nevada also require that redundant fire pumps be provided once buildings exceed a certain height; generally, buildings in excess of 200 to 250 ft tall. These large projects also contain challenging fire hazards, such as high-volume spaces (e.g., atria and theaters) that require extremely high flow rates. These conditions may require multiple fire pumps to operate in parallel to achieve the required demand of the systems.

White: Egress always tends to be a challenge due to the high-occupancy loading assumptions required by the building codes, in conjunction with the rather large floor areas associated with casino buildings. Where exit capacity becomes an issue, integration of horizontal exits into the design helps to increase the amount of egress capacity, while allowing for partial-evacuation schemes so that there isn’t a total building evacuation needed under any given alarm scenario. This requires careful coordination of fire alarm notification zones as well as the zoning of automatic sprinkler protection, which sends alarm signals to the fire alarm system. Horizontal exits usually help with travel-distance issues that come with large casino-floor designs. In other instances, we’ll take advantage of high slab-to-slab elevations and we will position exit passageways beneath the slab above, which can allow egress near the center of the casino floor and provide a protected path to the exterior of the building between the false ceiling and the floor slab above the casino floor. Unique interior designs often create challenges with sprinkler coverage. Usually, performance-based sprinkler protection is required to address the obstruction challenges of the interior design. In some instances, we have created mock-ups of the conditions and run real sprinkler tests to confirm the performance of the sprinkler design meets the intent of the codes and standards. 

Shino: Probably the most challenging situation is to have a large addition to an existing facility, such as a casino/resort with an existing high-rise tower that is then going to expand its podium and add a tower. High-rise provisions for one tower that was built a decade or more ago is typically not compliant with new codes and standards. Developing a scheme that incorporates modern code compliance without compromising the existing building’s fire protection features, and getting approval from the AHJ, can be complex.

CSE: What fire/smoke and security features might you incorporate in hotels, resorts, and casinos that you wouldn’t see on other projects?

Shino: In the past 20 years, smoke control for high-rise hotel/casino projects became fairly complex, with large open spaces and relatively low ceilings. Add to that an occupant load that includes one person per 11 sq ft and you have a dense occupant load with lots of plastic gaming equipment. Fire protection features for casinos must be robust.

CSE: What types of systems have you put in place to guard against natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc.? 

White: Typically, building structural and façade enhancements are required by the building code depending on the region in which the building is constructed. For example, casinos in Las Vegas will include structural provisions related to the high seismic potential in the area. Casinos in Macau or South Florida will include provisions to address the hurricane and typhoon zones in which they are situated. Resiliency of floors is often considered and required by certain insurance underwriters. In these instances, “berms” around the building perimeter are provided to protect underground parking areas. 

Critical building systems, such as incoming electrical, fire pumps, and emergency generator power supplies, are installed above the 100-year flood plain or on floors higher than the ground floor to ensure operation under flood conditions. Using fully integrated casino resorts as storm shelters is often an initial objective in early design, but it isn’t often carried through. To be a storm shelter, one must comply with the highest hazard-classification requirements of the building code, specifically IBC Chapter 16. Casinos that are not already in high seismic zones won’t necessarily comply with the rigorous high-hazard requirements that must be met to become a storm shelter. Therefore, a casino in Massachusetts wouldn’t automatically become a storm shelter, and it is cost-prohibitive to meet these additional requirements. 

Shino: Given the devastation that the United States has experienced regarding hurricanes and other natural disasters, there has been a renewed focus on confirming that buildings with high occupant loads meet the minimum code standards for both structural integrity and ensuring that emergency power systems are capable of sustaining power loads for their minimum duration. Some owners expect more, so having a minimum of 3 days’ worth of fuel for generators rather than the code-minimum amount may be requested.

Grove: Projects that are located on the West Coast are required to be designed to seismic considerations. For fire-suppression systems, this entails sway bracing and flexible couplings. Sway bracing, if designed outside of the parameters of the base code provisions, requires calculations to be performed on the type of materials for these braces and their maximum spacing. For high-rise buildings in these seismically active areas, secondary water-storage tanks are required to be incorporated into the fire-suppression systems. As these tanks are required to be designed to the most demanding sprinkler systems, it is not unheard of to have tank sizes approaching or exceeding 100,000 gal.



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