“We’re all over it”

Clark County’s trailblazing program to inspect existing casinos for building code compliance has yielded surprising results: thousands of violations found, and yet, not much public resistance from resort owners, who must foot the bill to bring their properties up to code.

“We’re all over it” was the reaction of owner George Maloof to the Palms’ inspection results. “There’s definitely been some good. There have been things brought to our attention that we wouldn’t have known about.”

Altogether, the 18 inspected sites have yielded almost 8,000 code violations with the most severe either corrected the same day they were found, or, in the cases of the Tropicana and Hooters in early summer, resulting in voluntary closure of the unsafe portion of each property until repairs were complete and inspections passed. Casinos get more time to resolve violations that do not present an immediate hazard.

The county’s new system to monitor existing resorts is unique in the nation, say county leaders and industry consultants. Launched in late 2008, the program so far has checked out nine properties on the Strip, seven off-Strip properties, the Gold Strike in Jean, and Buffalo Bill’s in Primm.

The resulting violation notices just recently started appearing on the county’s Web site though some of them were issued more than a year ago. Only violations that have been corrected are available online so far.

Circus Circus, which went through the first-ever resort inspection in late 2008, ended up with 858 violations; by early January, 90 percent of them were corrected. Planet Hollywood, inspected in late 2009, ended up with 985 violations and had fixed about 1 percent of them by this year.

Gaming executives and county leaders urge the public to view the inspection results in context, rather than as a numeric “score card” on building safety.

“We (in Las Vegas) start from an elevated base” for safety, given the community’s stringent codes, said Marybel Batjer, vice president for public policy and communications for Harrah’s Entertainment.

Clark County led the nation by revising its code to require indoor sprinklers after the MGM Grand fire in 1980.

“If it is imminent (danger), we take immediate action,” county Commissioner Steve Sisolak said.

“The number of (notices of violation) could depend on the size or the building, its complexities, the number of stories, the age, what the code was when it was originally built,” county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said.

James Quiter, a fire engineer, looked over inspection findings for the Nevada Resort Association.

He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that during his review, “I don’t remember any time where my reaction was, ‘Boy, this is unusual’” compared with buildings in other U.S. cities.

Quiter, whose firm does consulting here and abroad, said he isn’t aware of any other city that inspects its existing resort structures as closely as Clark County now does.

But Quiter, Nevada Resort Association President Bill Bible and spokesmen for several hotel groups expressed concern that the new program does not differentiate much among violations.

Violations not serious enough to trigger a closure can include technical details such as a guest room door whose fire-safe decal has been obscured by paint while the door itself is fine.

There are more substantive violations, such as sloppy electrical wiring hidden above a dropped ceiling. Inspectors classify both as “maintenance” items. The county has indicated the methodology will be refined as the resort program evolves.

Spokesmen for Boyd Gaming, Harrah’s Entertainment and MGM-Mirage all pointed out that the maintenance items account for the vast majority of their violations.

“Maintenance (notices of violation) are often minor issues caused by wear and tear,” the Nevada Resort Association said in a recent statement.

Yet Terry Taylor, an independent fire consultant in Northern Nevada, cautions against viewing maintenance items as minor problems.

Like a failed O-ring — which was the cause of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion — or a faulty wire in a chilled pastry case — the cause of the 1980 MGM Grand fire — small maintenance items might lead to disaster if ignored or repaired improperly.

“If there is an issue with maintaining features in the hotel that are part of the fabric of required fire protection and smoke control, then those violations rank high in importance even though they seem, on a piece of paper, to be unimportant,” Taylor said.

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