Portage County hotels are a source of false fire alarms: ‘Nobody knows how to make popcorn’

Photo by Brian Wangenheim

Hotels and motels provide revenue for cities, but they also take a toll in the form of false fire alarms. Every time an alarm goes off, a local fire department responds, and each one presents a potential safety risk if there’s a real fire at the same time. 

Burnt popcorn in guest rooms or in lobby areas, smoking in rooms or hallways, and even excessive steam from showers trigger alarms, Streetsboro Fire Captain Kevin Grimm said.

A four-day snapshot of SFD fire-related calls in early February revealed seven calls, three of them at hotels. Of those, two were triggered by guests cooking in their room (one for popcorn), and one was triggered by an unknown cause. A subsequent seven-day snapshot showed nine calls, one for a hotel alarm activated by steam and one triggered by smoking in a hotel room.

Brimfield Fire Department is responsible for five hotels, but did not respond to requests for comment.

Kent has two hotels, the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center and the University Inn, which is largely dedicated to long-term rentals.

Kent Fire Lt. Shawn Baynes says false alarms from those venues tend to be because the testing agency has forgotten either to put the alarm on test or to notify the KFD dispatcher.

“It’s more dorm rooms for us,” he said. “Typically it’s a hair spray or some kind of product like that, or for some reason, nobody knows how to make popcorn, and we get a lot of burnt popcorn calls.”

Smoke detectors struggle with steam — they only know something is in the air that shouldn’t be there, Grimm explained.

“Where they place the smoke detectors, they have to be so far into the room, but not too far, and so there’s times when people take such a hot shower, they open the door and the steam comes out,” he said.

Streetsboro Fire Department dutifully arrives, realizes it was a shower trigger, resets the system and leaves. Those calls count as false alarms, but the SFD doesn’t bill the hotels for them because, one, they don’t happen often and, two, it’s how fire suppression systems are designed, he said. If too many calls are coming from one hotel or one room, they encourage the owners to move the detectors away from the bathrooms.

According to Streetsboro law, if the SFD receives more than one false fire alarm in a 60-day period, the property owner is presented with written notification that they will be billed $500 for each subsequent false alarm in the following year.

Motel 6 and Quality Inn, both of which were sold last fall, had repetitive billable false alarms, mostly from smoking in rooms, Grimm said. When management did not pay up, the city placed a $6,500 lien on Motel 6 for 13 alarms and a $14,500 lien on the Quality Inn property, which tallied 29 excessive alarms, Grimm said. Both bills were paid when the hotels were sold.

Since Nov. 1, SFD responded to alarms at the two hotels a total of 10 times, which is a significant decrease from calls received under the previous ownership.

Hotel owners that provide “smoking rooms” need to adjust their fire alarm systems, but the former owners of the two hotels did not do so, he said. Some fire suppression systems are so old they cannot be reprogrammed, but newer systems provide an option.

“We’ve worked with the hotels to try and give them the opportunity to have a delay on single room smoke alarms so if just that smoke detector goes off, depending on the age of the entire fire system, they may be able to program in a delay where it gives the desk clerk an opportunity, like a minute and a half, two minutes, to go check the alarm to see if it’s a false alarm,” Grimm said.

If it is false, the clerk can run back to the desk, silence the alarm, clear the smoke out, and reset the system. If a second smoke detector is activated in those few minutes, if a sprinkler head is activated, or if a manual pull station is activated, the entire building alarm goes off, and hotel staff can’t reset that without SFD being present.

Flat irons coupled with hair products can also set off alarms, said Kent State Police Community Resource Officer Tricia Knoles. KSU police respond to the alarms — usually about three or four a week — and call off the Kent Fire Department before they respond.

Matthew McBirney, assistant chief with the Aurora Fire Department, said the city’s three hotels — the Aurora Inn Hotel & Event Center, the Bertram Inn Hotel & Conference Center, and Mario’s International Spa & Hotel — don’t generate any more false alarms than other city businesses.

“It’s not what we would consider a problem in this town,” he said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.