Demand Carbon Monoxide Alarms at Hotel Chains

Why is there no guarantee of carbon monoxide alarms at Hotel Chains? In most states, every landlord must supply a carbon monoxide alarm. Most states require them in all new residential construction. For a list of state requirements of alarms, click here. Yet, hotels are every bit as dangerous for CO poisoning as homes and apartments. The reason: people sleep there. Yet, few states and no franchises uniformly require them in all places people sleep.

Carbon Monoxide Alarms at Hotel Chains

Shown here is a smoke detector (not carbon monoxide alarm) hanging on the ceiling of a national hotel chain. Why is there no statutory requirement of Carbon Monoxide Alarms at Hotel Chains? Lobbying, not common sense. 

There are close to 30,000 hotel franchises operating in the United States. (We will refer in the blog to the hotel companies as the Hotel Chains.) The generic definition of a franchise follows:

“The overall principle of a Franchise Agreement is that the franchisee operates its own hotel, in compliance with the brand standards. The franchisee is required to pay: A franchise fee, including the brand trademark, based on a percentage of the hotel’s turnover.”

It is clear that the franchise concept permits the independent hotel owner to take advantage of the Hotel Chain’s market image in exchange for fees and an operating plan approved by the parent franchise. We would assume that training, safety precautions and guidelines would be well covered in the franchise agreement. As the public we expect a certain level of reliability based on the name brand of the hotel we check into. That assumption is core to the reason that the number of chain hotels increase every year.

Hotel franchising began in 1954 with the well-known Howard Johnson franchise. It was an idea that appealed to a more affluent and mobile population who really wanted to take the guesswork out of hotel reservations. The idea grew rapidly and quickly became the extensive network we see today.

Not one of us questions calling national reservation line to book stays at any of the major franchises we have become so familiar with. We believe we are under the watchful eye of the parent company who values our patronage. More importantly we feel that the parent companies observe standards of operation in all of their franchises, including those for safety. We also expect that the Hotel Chains would make sure that the people who are operating the hotels are competent to do so – and have the requisite training in not just the reservation system, but all of the aspect of operating a hotel.

But are we actually under the protective umbrella of the parent company when we confidently book our reservation? We should be as that is the expectation that we have when we book a room and it is the expectation that the Hotel Chains want us to have. That is the reason they control everything from the type of towels, sheets in each room, interior paint colors and the lighted signs we see from the freeway as we pull up to their hotel.

In our previous two blogs we explored in depth the incidents which occurred in 2013 that  led to the fatalities of three guests on two different occasions at the Boone Best Western due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty pool heater and ventilation system. For our previous blogs, click below:

Why Are Hotel Pool Heaters So Dangerous

Boone Best Western Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – The Rest of the Story

Carbon Monoxide at Hotels

We discovered event after event leading up to a perfect storm. We explored building code violations, violations of manufacturer guidelines, unlicensed maintenance men, untrained hotel management and much more. And we touched on the criminal charges which followed, ultimately finding the Appalachian Hospitality Management company guilty of three counts of manslaughter. This decision which paved the way for the family members of the deceased to file wrongful death lawsuits against both the hotel owner and the parent company.

We have also touched upon the lack of carbon monoxide detectors in individual guest rooms which was a decision made by the American Hotel & Lodging Association based on cost considerations. And disappointingly we also learned that North Carolina, acting in response to the three fatalities, weakly opted to enact laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors only in areas adjacent to fuel burning equipment and ventilation output sites.

Prior to the 1980’s, major hotel brands owned their real estate, carried the debt of construction and were basically the legal owners of their properties. But the move began to develop an asset light strategy wherein the major franchises collected fees in exchange for the use of their names and the assets switched to independent ownership. The intent behind this move was to allow the parent companies to turn their focus to the brand management and development, and out of the realm of construction and real estate debt.

This focus manifested in many ways. Understanding local markets and their needs, following trends to attract guests, and solidifying their particular niche in a competitive market. As part of that new approach to managing franchises, the parent companies focused on the training for new owners, and also supplying them with a wealth of information on all the technical aspects of their hotel’s operation. The owners received advantages like national and global reservation systems, but most importantly the use of the established brand and all the confidence of a public familiar with that brand.

Now we turn to the series of events at the Boone Best Western. Based on our explanation of the current operating philosophy of the parent companies, we would expect that the owner of the hotel had received full training on all aspects of the hospitality industry. From training staff to maintaining the property in a manner which guaranteed the safety of guests to a standard one might expect from a national/global brand. We would also expect that the parent company would provide the technical expertise for all systems in the hotel as failure to do so would reflect badly on the brand as a whole. We don’t expect that dining at a national restaurant franchise would consistently result in food poisoning due to inept management, nor do we expect to end our stay at a hotel franchise dead or injured. Our trust is in the parent company … even when we are in the hands of the franchisee owner.

Because the parent companies operate nationally and globally, they are familiar with differing regulations in a multitude of markets. In some of these markets carbon monoxide detectors are required in every guest room and the parent companies have adjusted to those requirements in order to compete in as many markets as possible. As such, they are well aware of the dangers of exposure to carbon monoxide due to the specific systems in operation in all hotels. This danger is no surprise to the part of the industry proudly touting their training programs for owners. It is impossible not to conclude that their decisions regarding voluntary placement of detectors is conscious and intentional and that the focus here has been shifted to reducing costs at the expense of safety.

We Expect Carbon Monoxide Alarms at Hotel Chains

The hotel chains require a standard of operation on many levels. From signage and amenities to safety and security standards to protect guests during their stay. Our public understanding is that all aspects of the particular establishment are routinely inspected to make sure the brand image and operating guidelines are being followed. Our expectation are that these inspections include operations and maintenance of equipment. As the public we expect all rooms and areas in a given hotel chain to have fairly identical amenities and standards no matter where the particular establishment is located.

At this point, we must ask, how did a well-known hotel franchise totally miss all the danger signs which led up to the deaths of three people? And on not one, but two separate occasions? And more concerning, is this a common shortcoming in the hotel franchise industry? The hospitality industry has long adhered to the statement that the safety and welfare of their guests is the top priority.

Hotel Chains try to Shell Themselves from Liability

Part of the problem is attempts to shield the national companies from liability in the case of death or injury at a hotel. Most franchise agreements separate the parent company from the hotel owner via contract on the grounds that the owner is an independent contractor who bears full responsibility for their operations. But when you are dealing with a high-profile brand that demands a multitude of standards to be met in order to carry the brand name, and requires inspections and very specific training,  then the line between parent company and hotel owner blurs and the argument against the brand bearing liability becomes a good deal weaker. You cannot claim in one breath that the hotel meets the operational standards of the brand and then claim that you have no hand in the operations of the hotel.

Hotel Chain’s Control not Contract Determines Fault

More specifically, if the hotel chain has determined that a swimming pool is an amenity which is important to the hotel’s demographics and the decision to install and operate the equipment necessary is guided by that vision, then obviously there are certain technical specifications linked to that amenity. And certainly not any less important than any of the amenities offered by that particular hotel per the parent company. The franchising company would not be happy with twenty hotels with elevators that routinely plunge its occupants to death. That would be a marketing disaster. Then why would they be complacent about the installation and maintenance of pool heaters and other fuel burning devices known specifically to create a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if not installed and maintained properly.

As the public, we hope that the specific guidelines related to any type of equipment are followed and that the equipment is maintained by licensed professionals. And when considering a national/global brand we hope that those requirements go above and beyond as the hospitality industry rests on the statement that our safety and security are the priority in all decisions and actions.

Hotel Chains are the business of franchising, inspecting, licensing and training hotel operators to operate the name brand hotels in their system, such as all Hiltons, Embassy Suites, Days Inns, etc.  Thus, all Hotel Chains should have knowledge of the risks of carbon monoxide in hotels and the necessity of having carbon monoxide detectors in all places where fuel burning appliances are operated. Hotel Chains have a duty when licensing, inspecting and training the hotel operators of its hotels to assure that the operators and owners of the franchised hotels understand the need for carbon monoxide detectors and to require that carbon monoxide detectors be installed in each room at their chain properties.

In a typical chain hotel franchise, the Hotel Chain will sell a franchise and enter into a franchise agreement for the specific hotel where they mandate that they do inspections, supervision, provide operation support and training in hotel operations and maintenance to the franchisee of the specific hotel. These rules and inspections are required to make sure that any customer who books a room with any member of the chain, can have a room of comparable quality.

Likewise, hotel chains own and operate a common website for all of its hotel brands and locations. Further, they own and operate a common rewards program where members can earn points towards an extensive array of products and services, including free hotel nights, dining, retail, entertainment gift cards, merchandise and airline miles.

Hotel chains will also operate their own schools, often referred to as School of Hospitality Operations or SoHO.  Each SoHo will have an online learning management system called the where they provide General Managers access to dozens of professionally designed training courses to create high-quality experiences for their guests.  SoHO’s stated purposes are usually to help franchisee owners provide a high quality guest experience by providing them robust and comprehensive training opportunities and customized learning paths for franchisee team members.

Hotel chains don’t just talk about a good game about these compliance and rewards programs. They expend significant resources marketing their brands to the public and encouraging guest loyalty.

At a minimum, Chain Hotels should mandate and inspect for compliance that carbon monoxide alarms are in every guest rooms that has a fuel burning appliances. As an example, every hotel room that has a gas fired furnace in it should have a carbon monoxide alarm.

As the franchisor and brand managers, Hotel Chains have the means, ability and right to control many aspects of the day-to-day operations of its brand hotels, including the right to require carbon monoxide alarms in guest rooms or in any other location in the individual hotel. Chain hotels can require its franchisees to meet various brand standards it establishes. These standards include the appearance of the hotel building, signage, furnishings and appliances located within guest rooms and common areas and standards relating to security and safety of hotel guests and building occupants. For example, HOTEL CHAINS typically require all of its properties to provide frequently requested guest amenities and services. It is also worth noting that as almost all Chains are nationwide, that their chains include hotels in states and countries where carbon monoxide alarms are required.

It is almost undeniable that all Hotel Chains know that incidents involving carbon monoxide sickness or poisoning occur with alarming regularity throughout the hospitality industry. See for example the Hampson article, cited in our previous blog.   Hotel Chains also know that installation of carbon monoxide detectors would greatly reduce the potential for incidents to occur involving carbon monoxide sickness or poisoning of hotel guests.

Thus, the only conclusion that can be made is that Hotel Chains have made a deliberate and conscious decision not to require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in areas of where fuel burning appliances are located in hotel buildings. That conscious decision  exposes their guests and employees to an ongoing risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Despite this corporate/institutional knowledge, all over the Country hotel guests get poisoned by carbon monoxide in rooms with no CO alarms. Carbon Monoxide Alarms at Hotel Chains must be mandated by the Hotel Chains, the national corporate franchisor. It is the only way that you can truly trust that when you choose a name-brand hotel, you will be able to safely sleep when you put your head on the pillow. Every single slogan you can associate with a brain hotel, implies that you are being promised that. It is time to deliver on at least that much of the promise.

And how did this struggle for corporate attention impact the decision to repurpose an old pool heater in Boone, NC rather than purchase a new one and to refit that pool heater against the manufacturer’s warnings? And where does it leave the issue of public safety and security when sub-par hotels do not receive the corporate support they thought they signed on for? This is a situation in which the hotel owners have determined the operation of the franchise and not the other way around. The franchise is presenting its name to the public as a promise of standards it has no intention of enforcing and the theme appears to be guests beware rather than public safety and security first. When this mode of operating within the hospitality industry is unchecked, tragedies can happen.

We saw the results of this careless approach on the behalf of the hotel franchise in the three tragic deaths at the Boone Best Western. And the tragedy really sits upon the shoulders of both owner and parent company for presenting themselves as a trusted brand when in fact no franchise standards were in place or reinforced. A fact not known to the casual traveler checking in for a stay.

What is the solution? Each time we sue a Hotel Chain in a carbon monoxide poisoning event, we believe we are moving closer to that solution. Hotel chains must understand that they have responsibility and unfortunately, the only way to bring that responsibility home is to force them into the Courts. We continue to believe that liability lies Hotel Chains for failure to demand carbon monoxide alarms in every room. If the legislatures are too influenced by the lobbying pressure of the hospitality industry, then it must be for the Courts and juries to demand carbon monoxide alarms are everywhere that someone sleeps.

Rebecca Martin contributed to this blog. 


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