EIFS: (Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems) Buildings fully clad with EIFS will contribute to rapid fire spread. Some newer hotels and motels are being constructed using EIFS, lightweight truss and OSB. These have to be identified on fire preplans.

Motel fires are not rare occurrences. Motels will usually have less fire protection and most are NOT fire-resistive structures like many high-rise hotels are. Newer motels are being built with lightweight construction and polyurethane foam insulation. Older motels are usually ordinary or wood-frame construction with cocklofts and attic space adding to fire spread concerns.

​REMEMBER: Toxic gases emitted by burning polyurethane foam include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, acetaldehyde and acetone. 

Lightweight construction with polystyrene foam insulation.

The Southwest Inn fire with collapse killing four Houston firefighters, and injured 13 others.

Motels constructed of combustible wood-frame burn quickly. If not stopped within several minutes, expect a total loss.

1-2 story motels have many void spaces for fire to spread as soon as it exits the windows or front door of a single room.

Fires in wood-frame constructed motels grow and intensify extremely fast. Fire tests confirm that a small fire can ignite everything in a small motel room in under 5 minutes. Motels with combustible construction, especially lightweight truss, are often a total loss. Most rooms have smoke detectors, but lack sprinklers, which may be located in common areas, corridors, hallways and lobbies instead of the guest rooms.


Credit these hotel fires of the past for todays improved fire safety, stricter codes, protective systems and the safety act of 1990.

Pioneer Hotel: 128 Dead

Winecoff Hotel Fire 1946: 120 Dead

MGM Grand Fire 1980: 87 Dead

Some past notable tragic hotel fires in the U.S.

VENTILATION: A fast moving fire may require a trench cut when fire reaches the cockloft, and is spreading quickly. Unless a window fails during fire, the front door might be the only way to horizontally ventilate in motel guest rooms, as some windows are difficult to break.

FIRE ATTACK: A small room and contents fire within a few hundred feet from the engine can be handled with a 150-185 GPM 1 3/4 line. Heavy fire on arrival exiting the windows or doors will demand a minimum 200-250 GPM 2 1/2 line. Delayed discovery and long response times may have two or more rooms with heavy fire showing on arrival which will have to dealt with using a 2 1/2 line or a 600-800 GPM deck gun, dumping the tank with a blitz attack to slow down the fire spread. Rooms located remote from the parking lot (courtyard areas) may require a '4 and 4' stretch; 4 sect of 3' hose with gated wye connected to 4 sec of 1 3/4 line OR a long  2 1/2 stretch from the pumper. For rescue of motel guests, the line must be used to protect their escape routes. 

DOOR CONTROL: If possible, keep the fire room door closed until a charged hoseline is in place and READY TO OPERATE to prevent vertical fire spread. 

WATER SUPPLY: Hydrant locations in urban areas are close by. Preplans will inform drivers where the best hydrants are located. Consider two pumpers using their tank water to flow a few handlines early, especially  if there's a problem with a hydrant or water supply operation. 

SIZE UP: When it comes to motel fires, most of the initial size up concerns from the acronym "COALWASWEALTH" will come into play. First arriving officers will need to quickly address any life hazards, construction, additional alarms, resources (police, utilities), forcible entry challenges, ladder placement, and ventilation locations. In addition, stretching initial attack lines will be difficult and need to be accomplished quickly. This cannot be delayed when heavy fire is showing from a motel room. The first due engine hunting for a hydrant and forward laying a supply line into the motel lot will waste precious time. Using 500-750 gallons of tank water is enough to knock down several rooms if the nozzleman is aggressive, and not blind. During an initial blitz attack from the first arriving engine, consider having the second due engine report to the parking lot, and advance their handlines to knock down the remaining fire. They also have 500-750 gallons of water in the tank! Assign water supply to the third due engine, that should already be responding.

REMEMBER: Only consider this strategy in cases where the parking lot can easily accommodate a second engine AND not interfere with the positioning of the truck company. The truck company usually takes the front or the corners of the building, depending on rescue, ventilation, ladders, and aerial use. 

During size up, determining if the motel construction is lightweight truss will help predict collapse potential, fire spread and roof ventilation concerns. Time of day will determine whether residents are likely to be sleeping, and location and extent will determine strategy and tactics for the first due engine and ladder companies. Line size, selection, placement and ground ladder placement for any trapped occupants will be determined from an accurate size up. Motel fires will require additional manpower for forcible entry and roof ventilation, if needed.   

FIRE SPREAD: Most motel fires will occur in the guest rooms, which have one door for access and egress. (Some interior doors may be present for adjoining rooms) If the main door to the room is left open, or fire is venting out of a window on arrival, the fire will run up the soffit and spread vertically and horizontally. A second or third story room fire will run up the soffit and spread into the cockloft. Look for overhangs on arrival and check adjoining rooms and the cockloft for hidden fire.  Consider a small 3 story wood-frame motel with 10 rooms on each floor having over 30 toilets, bathtubs, sinks, vents etc.. The void space from electric, cable, plumbing in each room and laundry areas will provide many holes for the fire to spread quickly.

KEEP IN MIND: Drop fires from a second floor motel room can ignite rooms below. When checking for extension in exposures, check the floors below as well. Many newer motels are made of lightweight wood-frame construction with truss roofs and Polystyrene exterior insulation.

The HVAC system in a motel will spread smoke throughout the adjoining block of rooms. Typically, a motel will not have the advanced protective systems in place that a hotel will when it comes to dampers/duct detectors etc.. Older motels will likely have window unit air conditioners.


For more on Hotel and Motel fires, visit our sections on Protective Systems,  High-Rise Fires, Parking Garages, HVAC'sElevators.

FORCIBLE ENTRY: Try to obtain a master key to the rooms in the management office, or the knox box. If management cannot provide one, doors will have to be forced with the irons and hydraulic ram. This will be labor intensive, but banging on the door first should alert any occupants in a motel room. Obtaining a list of occupied rooms by management may make it easier, but rooms with vehicles parked in front of them are likely to be occupied. Check for numbered parking spots that match room numbers and start with those. As a last resort, the windows can be taken out and cleared for VES, but keep in mind that many motel windows are difficult to break. Consider rescue priorities, property damage and fire spread potential when deciding whether to break a pitch glass window.

KEEP IN MIND WHEN BANGING ON DOORS: Some seedy motels house drug users who may not own a motor vehicle and who also may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs when firemen are banging on their doors to alert them of fire. They might not hear the warnings. Some of these motel guests are permanently housed through programs, charities, jail and rehab release programs, etc...

IMPORTANT: Often, children are left alone in MOTEL rooms while their irresponsible guardians are out getting high, drunk, or trickin. Children will be too scared to answer a door being banged on in the middle of the night by firemen. During a fire, kids tend to hide under beds, in closets and bathtubs. Toys and bicycles are some indicators children are present. The room has to be forced and searched quickly.

SEARCH AND RESCUE: During motel fires, rescue/evacuation must start by alerting adjoining rooms closest to the fire on both sides, and GROUND ladder placement in the front and rear. Occupants may be cut off from the exterior stairwells, which may be their only escape routes. Check the rear for jumpers, and consider utilizing the pumpers 24' ground ladders for quick placement.

Depending on how full the parking lot is, aerial ladders should attempt to set up on the corners to access 2 sides of the building for roof ventilation, and rescue for motels over 3 stories. Banging on doors and opening unlocked doors to check for occupants closest to the fire should be done immediately. The time it takes to force one door, several other rooms could have been quickly alerted to fire. Prioritize forcible entry according to most threatened, least threatened by fire/smoke. The knox box, or desk clerk should have a master key.

Quick primary searches of the rooms should be done, sweeping under the bed, in the closet, and bathroom where kids are likely to hide. Some residents may refuse to leave, believing there's a false alarm or other reasons like pure insanity. Have police remove them if possible.  

Fire departments across the U.S. respond to approximately 4000 hotel and motel fires every year resulting in loss of life, and over $100 million in property damage. Nearly half of these structure fires involved cooking equipment, with the rest caused by smoking, heaters, arson, and laundry equipment. When it comes to motels, life safety and rapid fire spread are two major concerns that will present unique challenges for first arriving companies and incident commander.

Hotels and Motels are occupied by temporary and permanent guests who may not be familiar with escape routes, emergency exits, alarm warnings, and who will most likely be sleeping during the night. As always, life safety is our top priority and accomplishing that in an occupied high-rise hotel or three story motel will require additional resources. Evacuation and rescue will be a difficult task requiring additional alarms.

Fires in these occupancies are not rare events, and we should prepare for them by conducting fire preplans. When it comes to strategy and tactics, there's going to be several differences between hotels and motels. 

HOTELS- MOTELS: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? There are many differences and a few similarities between motels and hotels. From a firefighting standpoint, strategies and tactics in motels are similar to garden apartments and condo complexes. Multi-story hotels are similar to residential high-rises and mid-rises. Both have some level of fire protection, with hotels more likely to be equipped with standpipes, pump rooms, and sprinklers in each room. Thanks to the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, combined with numerous tragic hotel fires resulting in multiple fatalities (LaSalle Hotel, Hotel Canfield, Hotel Winecoff, MGM Grand) todays hotels offer more fire protection.

Fire preplans are critical for response area hotels and motels to understand what protection systems are in place, visible hazards present, guest room layouts, managers office location (knox box), type of construction, numeric orders of detached buildings, pump rooms, parking lot vehicle obstructions, hydrants, and locations requiring a long hose stretch (courtyard areas).

HOTELS: Hotel comes from a French word for an establishment that provides lodging, meals and other services.

Hotels are usually fire resistive structures, mid-rises or high-rises equipped with standpipes, elevators/escalators, balconies, parking garages, and rooms that open to the interior hallway of the building. Hotels also offer more amenities such as indoor swimming pools, fitness centers, room service, suites, stores, restaurants, salons, cocktail lounges, laundry-dry cleaning services, childcare, bellhops, meeting facilities, valet parking, casinos, banquet facilities, WI-FI and more. While hotels may be fire-resistive they still have combustible furnishings. Some examples of "hotels" are Holiday Inn, Marriott, Four Seasons, Hyatt, Radisson and Westin.

MOTELS: Motels came along much later, in 1925. It blends the words motor and hotel, describing an establishment that provides some services of a hotel. Motels are usually 1-4 story structures where the exterior doors to the rooms face the parking lot, although some motels have doors facing common areas. Construction will vary, but most will be of type 2, 3, or 5 with lightweight construction in newer structures. Motels usually have exterior stairways, narrow exterior corridors, rear balconies and breezeways present. The layout of most motels is typically constructed in an 'I'- or 'L' or 'U' shaped layout.

Motels offer less amenities, staff less employees, and are less expensive. They are often located near airports, urban areas, attractions, freeways and on the outskirts of town where hotels are not present. Beach and shore regions like New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Florida have hundreds of 1-2 story motels. Some examples of "motels" are Econo Lodge, Motel 6, Knights Inn, and Super 8, to name a few.

A slow smoldering fire that took 90 minutes to develop, resulting in a massive deadly fire in N.J.

This video shows how quickly a fire progresses in a motel room when the door is left open and oxygen introduced.