Engine Company, Fire EMS, Firefighting, Training

A Close Call Encounter of the Elevator Kind

BY MICHAEL A. DRAGONETTI

It was a reasonably quiet 24-hour tour of duty for the members of Rescue 1/Group 4 of the Stamford (CT) Fire-Rescue Department on December 31, 2006. The four-member company responded to six unspectacular runs, drilled on some new scuba equipment we had received, enjoyed a great New Year’s Eve meal, and watched the ball drop in Times Square. At approximately 0225 hours, Rescue 1 and Truck 3 were dispatched and responded to a report of an occupied elevator that was stuck between floors at 26 Mill River Street, a hotel and banquet facility.

AT THE SCENE

On arrival, units encountered several hundred intoxicated people in the lobby area, making operations difficult. We requested police assistance, but the dispatcher responded that response would be delayed; the police were occupied with a situation on the other side of the city.

After we grabbed our elevator equipment from the rig, we had to push through the unruly crowd and lug the equipment to the elevator corridor. The four-story hotel had two cable-type traction elevators that served the four floors and the basement. The building also had a hydraulic freight elevator that was not involved with this incident.

When we arrived at the elevator lobby, where there were two elevators, we immediately determined that the left elevator was stuck between the first and second floors and had passengers inside. Two Truck 3 members were immediately sent to the elevator’s motor room, located in a separate structure on the roof, to kill the power to the stalled elevator using lock-out/tag-out procedures. They were instructed to remain in the motor room in case the adjacent elevator needed to be shut down also.

There was an elevator hoistway door keyhole in the door on the lobby landing. A Rescue 1 firefighter opened the hoistway door using a drop key to determine the car’s location and to contact the people inside. He told them that they were safe and that we would have them out momentarily. The elevator was stalled exactly between floors—with the car platform approximately eight inches below the top of the first-floor hoistway door frame (photo 1); the top of the car was level with the second-floor landing (photo 2). We knew at this point that taking the passengers out through the normal entranceway was not an option.


Photos by author.
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RESCUE OPERATIONS

We tried to get the stalled elevator to operate normally and respond to another floor so we could remove the passengers through the elevator doors at another floor, following our initial response procedure (see “Elevator Initial Response Procedures”). All attempts failed, so we decided that removing the passengers through the top escape hatch was the only option.

A discrepancy in the building management records as to which elevator company had the maintenance contract delayed the request that the company send a mechanic. Although this information is usually posted in the motor room, it was not available in this case. Because of this, the elevator mechanic did not arrive until the incident was terminated.

Three Rescue 1 members responded to the second floor. I stayed behind and attempted to recall the adjacent elevator with Firefighter’s Service, using the Phase I key switch, but the elevator car stopped at the first floor, opened approximately eight inches, and proceeded to the basement level, where it stopped working (not normal operation for Firefighter’s Service). Using this procedure, I had intended to bring the adjacent car next to the stalled elevator so I could reach across with a poling tool (an extendable flat hook-shaped device) and pick the door lock of the stalled car. I proceeded to the basement and tried to put that car in Phase II mode, but it did not respond. Both elevator cars were now out of service.

Firefighters on the second floor made a second attempt to communicate with the stalled elevator’s passengers to determine if there were any medical emergencies and to update them on our progress. But because of the noisy crowd of New Year’s Eve partygoers, the people trapped in the elevator could not hear us. As a precaution, EMS was called to the scene to stand by in case passenger medical problems arose inside the car. Finally, one passenger responded there were no injuries in the elevator, so EMS was told to respond with traffic at this time (i.e., no lights and sirens).

MEDICAL EMERGENCIES

The absence of a hoistway door keyhole on the second floor delayed our access to the stalled elevator car. We would normally have used the adjoining car as a base from which to “pole over” to open the hoistway doors or used door lock pick tools because there were no keyholes, but the door lock configuration made that impossible. We attempted to pole up to the second-floor hoistway doors from the first floor, but the distance between floors exceeded our poling tool’s length. We decided to enter by placing a ladder on top of the adjacent car in the basement, then raising the ladder to the top of the stalled car so that we could open the hoistway door from inside the shaft. Truck 3 members in the motor room were ordered to kill the power to the second elevator car and verify that power to both elevators was shut down, using lock-out/tag-out procedures. But at that time, to make matters worse, an elevator passenger reported that one passenger was unconscious, a pregnant woman was having difficulties, and a third person was having an asthma attack.

Once we were informed that the power was off and locked and tagged out, we placed the ladder in position on the top of the adjacent elevator. I climbed the ladder and crossed over the hoistway divider beam to the top of the stalled elevator. I noticed that the passengers had forced open the top escape hatch and were attempting to self-rescue. I immediately shut off the emergency stop switch on the run box on the top of the car and opened the second-floor hoistway door to allow a firefighter to join me on top of the stalled car. I needed immediate help to prevent the passengers from climbing out of the top escape hatch. I also noticed that the passengers had opened the car doors, so I manually closed the doors using the car door motor on top of the car so that the passengers wouldn’t injure themselves with any hoistway equipment. As we were doing this, two firefighters started to set up a fall arrest system (using high-angle rope equipment to remove the passengers and ensure firefighter safety) outside the elevator shaft at the second-floor landing.

ELEVATOR IN FREE FALL

Without warning, the elevator started to freefall. The firefighter with me attempted to jump from the top of the elevator car back into the second-floor lobby. Not quite making the landing, he started to fall back into the shaft. Instinctively, the Rescue 1 officer grabbed him and pulled him to safety. I remained on top of the car, with the passengers still inside, and rode it down approximately 32 feet as it slammed into the car buffers in the basement pit. We removed 16 people from the elevator; miraculously, no one was injured from the free fall.

INCIDENT INVESTIGATION

Why did the elevator freefall? The Stamford Fire Rescue Department initiated an investigation after the incident, interviewing firefighters who were on-scene, the building owner, the elevator company personnel, and the state Bureau of Elevators staff. Although this incident is still under investigation, the following factors may possibly have contributed to the elevator’s free fall:

Noise. During initial operations, we couldn’t communicate clearly with passengers inside the elevator because of the noise in the first-floor lobby and inside the car. This prevented us from finding out how many people were in the elevator and approximating how much weight the car was carrying.

Overloading/stress. The elevator car was overloaded. It was rated for a 2,500-pound passenger capacity, approximately eight to 10 people. However, in this incident, the elevator contained 16 people, twice its passenger capacity. The additional weight of the two firefighters on top of the car may also have contributed to the incident. During the incident, a fight broke out inside the car, which added additional stress to the elevator.

Brakes. The brakes on the elevator hoist motor may have failed. However, the elevator company performed a 3,200-pound hoist motor brake test a couple of days after the incident and found no evidence of brake failure.

Cables. There were only three cables supporting the elevator. Most traction elevators require a minimum of four or five cables, which allows for greater traction.

Also, the cables were rouged (worn) and undersized, according to a December 5, 2006, state elevator inspector’s report. The hotel was ordered to fix this problem by January 6, 2007, or the elevator would be taken out of service. It is more than likely that the cables slipped through the grooves of the sheaves (pulleys).

LESSONS LEARNED

• Communicate with the passengers inside the car immediately to reassure them and determine if anyone is sick, injured, or in need of medical attention. We repeatedly tried to talk to the stalled elevator’s passengers, but it was difficult because of the loud noise in the lobby and inside the car.

• Request an EMS response if any elevator passengers need medical attention. Since we were unable to confirm this, we called for EMS just in case.

• Determine how many passengers are in the elevator car as soon as possible, either by seeing for yourself or from a credible person inside the elevator. If we had known that the car was overloaded, we would have secured it with rigging to prevent a freefall. Note that under normal circumstances, the elevator shouldn’t move when the power is turned off. I am presently working with elevator industry personnel to develop methods for securing elevators mechanically in any incident.

• Trained personnel must secure (rig) overloaded or compromised elevators so they cannot freefall. If personnel on the scene are not trained in this skill, they must await the arrival of an elevator mechanic or fire department personnel who are trained in this discipline. Training in basic and advanced elevator emergency procedures is paramount. Securing a compromised elevator is an advanced skill on which our rescue company trains often.

• Trained personnel must set up a fall arrest system using high-angle rope equipment for the removal of the passengers and for firefighter safety when a fall hazard exists. If personnel on the scene are not trained in this skill, they must await the arrival of trained personnel. During this rescue, the firefighter who joined me on the top of the stalled elevator took a calculated risk in not waiting for the fall arrest rope system to be set up. I needed immediate assistance to keep the passengers inside the car and out of harm’s way. Normally, the elevator shouldn’t move when the power is turned off.

• If you are faced with a similar situation and the elevator free falls, do not panic and attempt to jump off. You have a better chance of survival by riding the car. When the car overspeeds when going down, the car safety will apply and bring the elevator to a stop. In this case, the car fell from the second floor and never reached a speed for the car safety to activate. The firefighter who attempted to jump to the second-floor landing was extremely lucky that the Rescue 1 officer was in a position to pull him to safety.

•••

I spent seven years working in the elevator industry prior to becoming a firefighter and have taught the “Handling Elevator Emergencies” course since 1999. I am used to being in the elevator shaft and around elevator equipment every day. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be involved in such a crazy incident. Something like this can happen to anyone at any time. My elevator industry training and experience prevented me, my brother firefighter, and the passengers inside the car from becoming injured. Training in basic and advanced procedures for elevator emergencies is of paramount importance for every rescuer.

Because of the factors listed above, what we encountered was a technical rescue, not just a routine elevator call. For any specialized rescue, call for additional resources trained in technical rescue. All emergency personnel should be aware of what is out there and never feel “This won’t happen to me.” Always err on the side of caution; our safety comes first!

MICHAEL A. DRAGONETTI is a 13-year veteran firefighter with the Stamford (CT) Fire-Rescue Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1. He is a New York and Connecticut state-certified fire service instructor and has been an instructor at FDIC since 2003. Prior to developing and teaching “Handling Elevator Emergencies,” he had extensive experience in the New York City metropolitan area constructing, modernizing, maintaining, and repairing elevators and escalators with one of the largest elevator companies in the world. In addition, he is the founder and president of Dragon Rescue Management, a technical rescue training company.

Elevator Initial Response Procedures

  • Contact elevator mechanic and building management.
  • Obtain lock box key if one is available. The box may contain useful elevator keys.
  • Verify which elevator is stalled if multiple elevators are present. It is very important not to open the wrong hoistway door. Doing so will stop the operating elevator in mid-travel, possibly causing additional problems.
  • Determine the elevator’s location in the hoistway.
  • Once you have located the elevator, make immediate verbal contact with the passengers and assure them of their safety. Ask if anyone is ill or injured.
  • If an emergency stop switch is present inside the car, have a passenger, if possible, turn it off and on a few times. This may restart the elevator.
  • Have a passenger push a couple of floor buttons and/or the “Door Open” button.
  • Have a passenger push closed the car doors if they are not fully closed.
  • Activate the Phase I switch (Firefighter’s Service) in the lobby. This may bring the elevator down to the lobby. Notify occupants first!
  • Make sure that all hoistway doors are fully closed (front, rear, and side).
  • Cycle (turn off, wait 30 seconds, turn back on) the main line disconnect to the stalled elevator.