Stalled Elevator Operations

By Michael A. Dragonetti

In Brooklyn, New York, on a Friday evening, a building superintendent (super) received a knock on his door. He opened the door to find a frantic nine-year-old girl. She told him that her mom was trapped in the elevator. The super grabbed his elevator key and followed the girl to the stalled elevator. They arrived a few minutes later; the super made verbal contact with the woman stuck in the elevator. He reassured the woman that she was safe and that he would have her out momentarily. The elevator was stalled between floors. It was sitting approximately three feet below the landing.

The super inserted the drop key into the keyway and rotated the key, opening the elevator shaftway door. He then proceeded to open the elevator door in the fully open position.

For the first time, he had visual contact with the woman. He smiled at her and reassured her a second time that she was safe. He then blocked open the door with his foot; grabbed the wall for support with one hand; and leaned into the elevator, reaching for the woman with the other hand. In an instant, the elevator made an unexpected movement upward, pinning the super’s head between the top of the elevator door frame and the elevator floor, killing him instantly.

(1) The firefighters are wearing proper PPE while working in the elevator shaft. A top escape hatch removal, as shown in this photo, is the last resort for removing the passenger. A fall arrest system must be implemented for firefighter and passenger safety. (Photos by author.)
(1) The firefighters are wearing proper PPE while working in the elevator shaft. A top escape hatch removal, as shown in this photo, is the last resort for removing the passenger. A fall arrest system must be implemented for firefighter and passenger safety. (Photos by author.)

The above scenario occurred in a 16-story high-rise building in the 1980s. What likely seemed routine to the super at the time proved to be a deadly mistake. I suspect the mother and her daughter will be scarred for life by this horrific accident.

You’re probably asking yourself, How could this happen? Elevators just don’t move with the doors open. Although this is not an everyday occurrence and elevators are equipped with many safety features to prevent movement with the doors open, the possibility of movement with the doors open always exists.

Unfortunately, history has repeated itself since this incident, and passengers as well as would-be rescuers have died during the removal process. However, these tragedies can be prevented if safety precautions are followed. Power to elevators should always be turned off before opening the hoistway door. If proper procedure is followed, tragedies such as this most likely can be prevented.

How many times have you been dispatched to an automatic fire alarm and, while responding, say to yourself, “Not again! We were there three times this tour.” This time, however, you arrive to find a working fire. We all get complacent at times and become a little too comfortable with general firefighting tasks that we perform on a regular basis. This complacency can cause us to take shortcuts. Taking shortcuts can result in the same outcome as described in the opening scenario.

(2) The safest way to remove the passenger from an elevator is at floor level through the normal entranceway.
(2) The safest way to remove the passenger from an elevator is at floor level through the normal entranceway.

The building super likely dealt with that elevator numerous times. The elevator was probably stalled in the same location, and he had probably removed people in a similar manner on a regular basis. The lesson learned is, Always kill the power!

The elevator in the scenario was a cable traction elevator. Be aware that a cable traction elevator can move even though the power has been secured.

My crew and I were involved with a potentially deadly situation at an elevator emergency in 2007.1 Many hard lessons were learned that morning.

Safety Points

The most important points to remember during a stalled elevator operation are the following:

  • Safety. The most common statement I have heard throughout my elevator and firefighting career is, “Safety first.” In my opinion, it should be stated, “Safety always!” Our primary concern at a stalled elevator operation is firefighter and passenger safety. Most hazards at a stalled elevator operation are things that can be taken for granted. Other potential hazards seem so basic that you think it can’t happen to you. It only takes a moment of distraction or carelessness, and you can end up with tragic results. Avoid shortcuts. Wear proper personal protective equipment while operating in the hoistway (helmet, gloves, boots, eye protection), and follow department standard operating guidelines (SOGs) at all times (photo 1). We are just scratching the surface about safety in this article. Safety concerns are endless.
  • Incident vs. Emergency. Department SOGs should classify stalled elevator operations as either incidents or emergencies. An elevator incident can be classified as a stalled elevator with trapped passengers who are not in immediate danger and have no evidence of injury. The passenger is merely stuck in a stalled elevator. Note: Constantly monitor conditions. An incident may escalate to an emergency at any time. An elevator emergency is a situation where one or more of the following conditions exist:
    • Fire is endangering passengers in a stalled elevator.
    • The passenger in a stalled elevator is ill or injured.
    • The passenger in a stalled elevator is panicking.

I use the acronym FIP-Fire, Injury, Panic-to classify the stalled elevator operation as an emergency.

Considering what we now know regarding elevator incidents vs. emergencies, ask yourself, If we respond to a stuck occupied elevator and classify it as an incident, do we need to expose the passengers to the elevator shaft during the removal process? The safest way to remove a passenger from a stalled elevator is at floor level and through the normal entranceway (photo 2). In most cases, the elevator mechanic can manipulate the stalled elevator from the motor room and make this possible. If the passenger is perfectly safe inside the stalled elevator and the incident does not escalate to an emergency, wait for the elevator mechanic. Being patient, reassuring the occupant that he is safe, and using this procedure will eliminate the hazard of exposing the passenger to the dangerous environment inside the elevator shaft. Note that waiting for the elevator mechanic may not always be an option. The following conditions will prohibit you from waiting for the elevator mechanic:

  • An emergency situation (FIP).
  • The response time of the elevator mechanic.
  • The availability of the fire department and call volume.
(3) The firefighter is killing the power safely. (4) Lockout/tagout tags indicate the power has been shut off.
(3) The firefighter is killing the power safely.

Initial Response Procedures (IRPs)

If the officer in charge has made the decision to remove the passengers because of one or more of the above reasons, he should follow these initial response procedures:

  • Contact the elevator mechanic and building management.
  • Obtain the building’s lock box key if one is available. The box may contain useful elevator keys.
  • Send two firefighters to the motor room. They should be equipped with keys for the locked motor room, a set of irons, radios, a lockout/tagout (LOTO) kit, and an appropriate fire extinguisher.
  • 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. Here is where you will determine if you have an FIP situation.
  • If an emergency stop switch is 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 (Fireman’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 the main line disconnect (power switch) to the stalled elevator (turn off, wait 30-45 seconds, turn back on). Attempt this only once. If the elevator does not respond to this action, it is beyond our capabilities to get the elevator moving again.

The above suggestions are recommended by American Society of Mechanical Engineers A17.4, Guide for Emergency Personnel (2015). It is important to complete the above IRPs because the safest way to remove the passengers from a stalled elevator is at floor level and through the normal entranceway. There is a very good chance we can accomplish this through the IRPs. If all attempts fail, then the main line must be turned off (kill the power) using LOTO before removing the passengers through alternate methods.

  • Kill the power using the LOTO procedure. Kill the power to the stalled elevator at every elevator operation after the IRPs are accomplished and prior to removing the occupant. Ensure that an LOTO procedure is in place. LOTO is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard that requires that power to an elevator be cut off before beginning elevator operations.
(3) The firefighter is killing the power safely. (4) Lockout/tagout tags indicate the power has been shut off.
(4) Lockout/tagout tags indicate the power has been shut off.

This procedure ensures the safety of the firefighters operating at the incident and the passengers trapped inside the car. Simply put, a tag and lock are placed on and secured to the main line disconnect once power has been removed (photos 3-4). LOTO procedures are not limited to elevator operations. They are used in many other applications. The purpose is to ensure that machinery, equipment, or systems being worked on are properly secured.

  • Do not restore power to the stalled elevator. Once the power to the stalled elevator has been removed, do not restore it. LOTO should remain in place. This will prevent the power from being restored to the disabled elevator and eliminate the chance of a second incident. If the elevator mechanic is not on the scene, he is likely en route. Advise the elevator mechanic of the condition in which the elevator was left (for example, what main lines were thrown, any damage to equipment).

In the opening example, the building super made a fatal mistake by not killing the power to the stalled elevator before opening the hoistway door. He likely figured that the elevator would be inoperative when the elevator doors were open. Typically, when the doors are open, the safety circuit is interrupted and the elevator should not run. Earlier that Friday afternoon, elevator personnel were working on the elevator. They manipulated the control panel to the elevator so they could move the elevator with the doors in the open position. This is a normal procedure when repairing an elevator. When the elevator personnel left for the day, they forgot to put the elevator back in normal service. The super did not know this; the rest is history. The accident could have been avoided if the power to the elevator was shut off. You never know what condition the elevator is in. Protect yourself and your fellow firefighters: Kill the power.

Reference

1. “A Close Call Encounter of the Elevator Kind,” Fire Engineering, December 2007; http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2007/12/a-close-call-encounter-of-the-elevator-kind.html.

MICHAEL A. DRAGONETTI is a 21-year veteran firefighter with the Stamford (CT) Fire Department. He was assigned to Rescue Company 1 for 17 years and is now the deputy chief’s aide in Group 2. He is a New York and Connecticut state-certified fire service instructor; has presented courses in elevator operations at the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Technical Rescue School (2002-2005); and was an instructor at FDIC 2003-2010. Prior to developing and teaching “Handling Elevator Emergencies” in 1999, 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.

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