Here's a primer for ensuring safe and effective response to emergency incidents involving elevators.
At any given moment, fire companies are dispatched to incidents that require the use of elevators to quickly and safely transport them and their equipment to a location within the building. For the purpose of this article, such incidents will be classified into two categories: emergency and non-emergency.
The definition of an emergency incident, citing NFPA 1561, is as follows: Any situation to which the emergency services organization responds to deliver emergency services, including rescue, fire suppression, emergency medical care, special operations, law enforcement, and other forms of hazard control and mitigation.
An example of an emergency incident (Level I priority) would be a fire in a multistory building with occupants who are trapped in the elevator car or who are experiencing a life-threatening medical situation. Other examples of a Level I response include: an elevator moving in the hoistway without the elevator car door completely closed and an elevator door that opens on any floor without the elevator car being at that level. These examples are serious life-threatening issues that affect the building’s occupants and will necessitate the immediate attention of the fire department and elevator maintenance technician in order to reduce the potential for serious injury or death.
An example of a non-emergency incident (Level II priority) would be a stalled elevator with occupants on the first-floor landing. Statistically, the majority of runs involving elevators that fire companies are likely to encounter are those that involve a disabled or stalled elevator with people in the car. There are approximately 600,000 elevators in the United States. You should expect mishaps to occur. An understanding of the basic mechanical principals pertaining to hydraulic and traction elevators — as well as the components of the machine room, hoistway and elevator car — is recommended for safe operations.
Written standard operating procedures and a strong command presence also will help to achieve a successful outcome at the operational level when it comes to working with elevators. The intent of this article is to provide guidelines for safe operations that require the use of elevators. Technical-rescue techniques for the removal of passengers will not be covered. Refer to NFPA 1670, as well as NFPA 1006, for such guidelines.
Fire departments that respond to elevator incidents, regardless of frequency or complexity, should have a training program in place that establishes specific measurable objectives in a block or module format. The training environment should incorporate classroom/lecture and practical skills applications. Even though the time component for training is not set in stone, it is reasonable to assume that a 12- to 16-hour block of time would be enough to meet the desired objectives. Training officers, field-level instructors, and the elevator maintenance technician are vital components to the success of such a program, due to their training and “in-the-street” experience.
The basic elements of the training program should include the following:
- History of elevators.
- Elevator system terminology.
- Tools and equipment (e.g., hoistway door unlocking keys).
- Emergency and non-emergency responses.
- Firefighters’ service, Phase I and Phase II operations.
- Types of elevators (e.g., traction, hydraulic and freight).
- Types of doors, interlocks and restrictors.
- Hallway and lobby features.
- Car components.
- Safety principles.
- Use of elevators during building fire.
- Removal procedures for emergency and non-emergency situations.
The overall objective of the training program should be commensurate with the type of service that will be delivered to the general public.
Response to Elevator Incidents
When fire companies are dispatched to incidents involving elevators, several pieces of vital information need to be relayed to responding units. This information should include, at a minimum, whether the response is a Level I or Level II priority.
Preplans should be developed and utilized to identify access to the building, as well as the type and location of the elevator(s) and stairwells. Identify which elevators are equipped for Phase I and/or Phase II operations, and which have emergency power.
Buildings that have elevators equipped with only the Phase I feature should not be used for fire-suppression operations. Also be sure to consider other useful bits of information concerning the location of elevator machine room keys, firefighters’ service keys, hoistway door unlocking keys, and any other specialized tools required for occupant extrication.
Decisions that are being made at the strategic and tactical level need to be complimented by dedicated training and SOPs. Firefighters expected to utilize elevators need to understand the components of the firefighters’ service operations (both Phase I and Phase II). In addition, all firefighting personnel should be thoroughly trained in the operation of the firefighter service features on elevator cars. The time to conduct training or to develop policies regarding emergency use of elevators is not when responding to an elevator incident.
A detailed explanation of the Phase I and Phase II service features can be found in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ A17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators. In short, Phase I and Phase II systems are defined as follows:
Phase I. A system that is intended to operate in either automatic or manual recall of an elevator car to a designated landing. Building occupants are prevented from using them during fire alarm activation.
Phase II. This system will allow firefighters to operate an elevator during a fire alarm activation from within the car, after the Phase I system has been activated.
The general recommendations for fire companies using elevators during response are as follows:
- Upon arrival oat the incident, the first due officer checks the annunciator panel.
- Select an elevator car that has firefighters’ service features.
- Dedicate a member to operate the car.
- If a fire in the building has been reported, firefighters should don full PPE, including SCBA, and carry high-rise hose packs, forcible-entry tools, radios, lights, 2H-gallon water extinguisher, and a 6-foot pike pole. Also, first-due engine and ladder company should operate as the initial-attack team.
- If a fire has been reported on the seventh floor or below, take the stairs.
- Stop two floors below the fire floor or floor in alarm, then take the stairs to investigate or initiate fire-suppression operations.
- Never take an elevator directly to a reported fire floor.
- Never take an elevator below grade.
- If the alarm panel indicates that smoke or fire are present in the machine room and there is only one elevator bank — use the stairs.
- Do not overload the elevator. Normal carrying capacity of an elevator ranges from 2,000 to 2, 500 pounds.
- Prior to entering the car, inspect the hoistway for signs of water, smoke or fire by shining light between the hoistway and the car.
The SOP should establish the guidelines to be followed for safe and effective response. The scope of the SOP should identify the types of fire companies that will be responding to an elevator incident. In addition, the document should address the individual responsibilities of the fire companies.
A model SOP is as follows:
- The primary responsibility will be to locate the elevator car(s) that reportedly is experiencing a problem. Typically this is determined by the floor indicator or from reliable people at the scene.
- Communications should be established with the individual(s). Every effort should be made to reassure the car occupant(s) that fire department personnel are attempting to stabilize the situation. Fire department personnel need to determine the condition of the occupant(s). Identify immediate life-safety issues. The company officer is responsible for providing all pertinent information. This will include the location of the stalled elevator(s), the number of trapped occupant(s), and the overall status of the occupant(s).
- As soon as communications with the car occupant(s) are established, the following instructions are to be considered:
- 1. Request that one of the occupants ensure that the "STOP" button is in the "RUN" position.
- 2. In the event that normal operations aren't restored, instruct one of the occupants to press the "DOOR OPEN" button.
- 3. If the doors are unable to be opened, notify the occupant(s) to remain calm.
- The primary responsibility is to terminate power to the affected elevator car(s). The elevator machine room will need to be accessed.
- Lockout, tagout procedures shall apply to the affected elevator car(s).
- The company officer shall notify the incident commander when power is terminated.
Heavy rescue/squad company
- The primary responsibility of the company is to provide technical rescue capabilities in the event conventional methods are unsuccessful with the removal of occupant(s).
- The heavy rescue/squad officer shall assume the responsibilities for identifying an appropriate incident action plan.
- Provide medical care to occupant(s) who have been removed from the elevator car.
- Only when an extreme emergency exists shall EMS personnel enter the elevator car or hoistway to render medical treatment.
- The responsibility of the chief officer shall be to organize and manage all fire and EMS company actions.
- It shall be the responsibility of the chief officer to establish an incident action plan and communicate that plan to all companies.
- It shall be the responsibility of the command officer to confirm that all safety procedures are in place for the removal of occupant(s), either in Level I or Level II mode.
The basic principles of elevator systems, as well as a comprehensive organizational approach to fire department use of elevators in multistory buildings, should be treated with respect. Knowledge and experience coupled with a proactive safety philosophy is crucial for a successful outcome when operating with elevators.