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Fire, tourism heads team to up hotel safety

LAWRENCEVILLE -- At any given time in Gwinnett, more than 6,000 people are staying in roughly 100 hotels and motels in the county.

When a fire starts in a hotel guest room, the occupant has, on average, two minutes to get out alive, the National Fire Protection Association found last year.

Statistics like those weigh heavy on the minds of not only firefighters, but on those responsible for keeping Gwinnett's lucrative tourism industry in good repute.

Accordingly, the county's Fire Department launched an initiative this week in conjunction with the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau called "Rest Safe." The program aims to put emergency personnel and hotel owners, engineers, maintenance supervisors and others on the same page when it comes to keeping lodging safe.

Evidence of the "Rest Safe" initiative will be popping up in hotels and motels across Gwinnett in the form of informational pamphlets, stickers and general safety reminders. The program, leaders say, is among the most comprehensive new initiatives of its kind in the nation.

The goal is "a cultural change, a paradigm shift toward safety," said Deputy Fire Marshal Brandy Mitchell, who spoke at a seminar outlining the program Monday morning.

Lisa Anders, Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau deputy director, said the lodging industry accounts for a yearly economic impact of roughly $200 million and is one of the few tax-generating industries on an upswing. Visitors spend about $1 billion per year in Gwinnett, Anders said.

"One of our biggest markets is youth sports lodging, so safety is vital," said Anders. "It's part of our reputation and our draw -- a safe, family-friendly destination."

All those visitors can be taxing to the Fire Department.

Firefighters and EMTs responded to 500 calls reporting fires and medical emergencies at area hotels last year, or 1.4 calls per day. Large-scale, disastrous hotel fires have been avoided in recent years.

The behavior of hotel occupants -- who commonly disable smoke detectors, throw away lit cigarettes and leave kitchenette stoves burning -- is partly to blame, officials said.

With visitors, "human behavior is always going to be unique," said Mitchell. "There's multiple languages and (in the case of a fire) they always want to go out the same door they came in."

From a hotelier's perspective, Andrew Wolf, general manager of CountryInn and Suites in Buford, said the "Rest Safe" program allows him access to emergency responders' knowledge, such as CPR training, which he can impart to his staff.

Deputy Fire Marshal Aaron Blackwell summed up the program's objective as so: "'Rest Safe' will save lives -- that's all there is to it," he said.