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Jennifer Robison

Nevada casino inspections a win-win

4 February 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- 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.

Into that category, Taylor places certain maintenance violations that frequently cropped up at the resorts inspected so far:

• Fire doors that are supposed to self-shut but which are impaired by kick stands or bad seals.

• Electrical components above a dropped ceiling that lack conduit or covers, both of which are designed to stop sparks from traveling.

County Manager Virgina Valentine said the new inspection program is a response to the rapid consolidation of casino ownership in the past decade, which focused more on financial analysis than physical assessment of the structures that were changing hands.

Casino owners who have kept up their buildings will pay less at inspection time. Those who deferred maintenance or built without permits will pay for initial inspections that take longer, as well as for inspections of the eventual repairs.

MGM Mirage was the only company in this go-round of inspections to reduce its costs by disclosing to the county, before its inspections, all work that had been done without permit. Six of its hotels have been probed: Circus Circus, Excalibur, Gold Strike, Monte Carlo, New York-New York and Treasure Island.

As of Wednesday, the county charges triple the hourly inspection rate when its inspectors find work done without permit that the owner did not predisclose. The rate itself increased on Wednesday, to $105 per hour from $75.

Some of the inspected hotels where work done without permits was found include Harrah's Las Vegas, Hooters, The Orleans, Palms, Planet Hollywood and Tropicana.

Without specifying which hotels, county building official Greg Franklin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the most common scenario for work without permits seems to be electrical wiring.

Ron Lynn, the county's top building official, linked that in part to the state gaming requirement of electronic surveillance for each high-denomination slot machine. Because casinos frequently move the machines, they also need to rewire their security cameras frequently.

To encourage casinos to pull permits, the county last year began an "annual permit" system for resorts and other large facilities. Using a single permit for the calendar year, a casino can expedite construction projects of modest scope, as long as it summons inspectors when the work is over. County code spells out limits for the projects that qualify.

After this first batch of 18 inspections, about 30 more resorts in the county's jurisdiction await their turn. Fremont Street casinos fall under the oversight of Las Vegas, not Clark County. Lynn said he expects to inspect each gaming site about every three years, and he will eventually expand the program to also inspect nongaming resorts and high-rise condominiums.

As with the county's other inspection programs, this one pays its own way through fees.

Because of the downturn in new construction, Lynn said, the county was able to add the resort program without increasing its inspection staff.