Codes & Standards, Features, Fire Prevention & Protection

High-Rise Fires and Elevator Functions

Elevator lobby
Elevator lobby in the Robert N.C. Nix Federal Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

By Mike Posner

“E-2 to Command. We need air bottles to the 37th floor. Crews are running low!”

This could happen to any crew out there. It’s not uncommon for firefighters to require additional supplies in high-risk situations. Not to worry, we will load an elevator with bottles and send them up. They’ll be there quickly, right?

Wrong.

Elevators may, in theory, be the quickest way to send the crew air, but they can also be the most dangerous. It’s easy to believe that running elevator calls or using them as a tool during a fire is a simple, non-dangerous run. Unless you understand the mechanics behind these machines and grasp the safety features, you will be gravely mistaken.

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An Elevator Near Miss for Many

One of the biggest problems with using elevators is complacency. We all think the elevator will operate and do what we tell it to without complications, but elevators are complex machines that have the possibility of malfunctioning.

Elevators have numerous safety features to help us avoid injurious or fatal accidents. The fundamental feature is the interlock. Every hoistway (the door leading to the elevator shaft) door is kept closed by the interlock, so unless the elevator is on a specific floor landing, the hoistway door should not open. If any hoistway is open between floors it will “break” the interlock and tell the elevator controller not to operate. Unfortunately, there have been many instances where the interlock did not do its job and the hoistway door opened with no elevator there. This is an extremely dangerous situation for firefighters using elevators in a smoke-filled environment. You may come across an open hoistway door and not recognize the elevator car is missing. If you enter the opening, you may fall down the shaft and be severely injured or killed.

Traction elevators have a brake mechanism on the motor located in the machine room. This brake is not there to stop the elevator, it is only there to keep the motor and sheave (a pulley system) from free spinning when power is killed or if an elevator stops at a landing. If a traction elevator motor has power, it has torque, which keeps the sheave from free spinning. Any traction elevator that has a brake issue is in danger of falling up—yes, I said up! Traction elevators have a counterweight, which weighs as much as the car plus 50 percent of the rated capacity of the car. On a normal ride when the elevator is not overloaded, the counterweight weighs more, so if there is an issue with the brake the counterweight will fall, causing the car to slingshot—fall up.

With all the safety features elevators possess, there is one for this situation as well. On newer elevators there will be a “rope gripper” brake, which will keep the car from any unintended movement, up or down. The problem is that not all elevators are new and up to code. This was the case on my department where an elevator with a brake issue “fell up” with a firefighter inside the car and with the hoistway door open. He was able to jump out of the car and through the hoistway thanks to an alert partner who noticed the elevator beginning to move while the man inside had no idea. The elevator then began a violent ascent up the shaft and stopped by slamming into the roof!

Now let’s talk about elevators in firefighter service. If you are entering a structure for any type of reported fire situation you need to place the elevators in “firefighter service” (phase 1 and phase 2). You must fully understand how this elevator operates in phase 1 and phase 2 and be aware of the dangers and nuances that may occur.

First, you must bring your key to gain access to the elevator key to place in firefighter service; some departments have that key readily available in the apparatus. Once you have the key you must find the phase 1 key panel, which will be at the designated landing zone of the elevator. Everyone has been in an elevator and seen a “star” next to a floor number; this specifies the designated landing zone and it is not always floor 1. Captain Bill Gustin and I learned this while attending FDIC International in Indianapolis. When we arrived at the “main” lobby and were looking for the phase 1 key panel and could not find it, Captain Gustin made a call and we were informed the second floor was the designated landing zone. He was asked: “Didn’t you see the star on the car operating panel floor 2 button?” We did, but prior to that moment did not make the connection between the “star” and the landing zone.

Once you have located the panel you must place the elevator into phase 1 by turning the key to “on.” The most important thing to remember when in phase 1 is that when the cars return to the designated landing (DL) you must account for all elevators in that bank. If you are missing any elevators, command must be notified immediately, because as far as command is concerned, we are missing an elevator car full of people on the fire floor.

When you enter the elevator to place it in phase 2 another issue arises: there are many jurisdictions employing a “regional” key. What is important to understand is that if this is the case, when you place the elevator in phase 2 the cylinder “captures” the key, rendering it useless to other elevators. If you do not have access to more keys, then this is the only elevator that can be placed in firefighter service. You must get out and preplan your areas to record this information in case of an actual incident.

Once the elevator is placed in phase 2 (and you are aware of any regional keys), you must pay attention to the illuminated fire hat on the panel. If this fire hat is flashing, it means that a smoke detector in the elevator machine room or hoistway has gone off. If the building contains a sprinkler system there will be a heat detector within 24 inches of the sprinkler. This heat detector is set to go off at a lower temperature than the sprinkler to avoid water from falling on an actively powered elevator. This has occurred in the past, causing the elevator to malfunction and not respond to in-car requests. To prevent this, the heat detector was installed. If the helmet is flashing, you are in danger of a “shunt trip” occurring. This will disengage all power to the elevator and it will not respond to any in-car requests, meaning you are essentially stuck somewhere in the hoistway. It is critical to have all your gear, self-contained breathing apparatus, and forcible exit tools with you. Make sure that the person with the tools is the last one in the elevator in case they need to force the doors!

Remember, now that the elevator is in phase 2 it will only do what you tell it to do. To close the doors, you must push and hold the button until the doors close completely. If you do not, the doors will open. Once you arrive at your destination you will need to push and hold the door open button. This is critical to remember. If you do not both push and hold the button to open the door, the doors will automatically revert to the closed position. Unless someone is inside the elevator car when the doors close, you will be locked out and that elevator car will be rendered useless.

Now let’s discuss fire service access elevators (FSAE). The requirement to provide FSAE can be found in the International Building Code (IBC) 2015. These are elevators that will be in buildings with an occupied floor greater than 120 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access. There must be no fewer than two FSAE, or all elevators, whichever is less.  Each FSAE shall have a capacity of no less than 3,500 pounds and 84 inches.

Sprinklers will not be installed in the FSAE’s control room or hoistway. There will be a smoke detector. This is why this elevator is the first choice if available as you will not be in danger of a shunt trip.

The elevator must be protected from water entering the shaft. This is done by drains, scuppers, sloping floors, dams around hoistways, gasket on doors/barriers, and gutters in hoistways.

The FSAE will be identified by a red fire helmet not less than three inches on both sides of the elevator hoistway door frame.

Once this elevator is placed in phase 2, the entire hoistway will light up.

There will be a thermal detector in every FSAE lobby which will be connected to the fire command center so the lobby temperatures can be monitored.

Occupant evacuation elevators (OEO), much like FSAEs, are elevators with strict codes. The requirements for the OEO can be found in the IBC 2015. 

OEOs are a design option for buildings greater than 420 feet in lieu of an additional stairway.  These elevators are designed for self-evacuation and egress for occupants who are not capable of traveling the stairs.  For instance, if the fire alarm goes off on the 67th floor, instead of taking the stairs to exit you would go to the lobby of your floor, catch the designated elevator and take it to a safer floor and then make your exit, freeing up the elevator for other occupants to use.

There are no sprinklers in the shaft or machine room which will prevent a shunt trip from occurring.  Unlike FSAEs, these elevators must have two-way communication from the elevator lobby to the fire command center and the building must be equipped with an emergency voice/alarm communication system.

The building codes require protected elevator lobbies and there shall be real-time messaging displays to provide information, such as availability and car estimated time of arrival, which will help occupants determine their best means of evacuation.

These elevators shall be designated with an approved sign posted adjacent to each call station.

The use of OEOs is still a relatively new concept, but with new construction getting taller and taller, there are great benefits with them.

There are many more things you need to learn about elevators. Professional firefighters must continue to educate ourselves and understand that we will train and learn throughout our entire career, not just while we’re rookies in school!

This article has only scratched the surface of the importance of understanding how elevators function and malfunction. You must be prepared for the inevitable: a high-rise fire with inoperable elevators!

Michael Posner is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and retired captain for Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. He conducts elevator training programs  to fire departments throughout the USA.