Dunn’s Dispatch: Deadly Elevators

By Vincent Dunn

At one of my last high-rise fires, three elevators failed and almost killed firefighters. The firefighter who was taking the first-attack hose team up to the 23rd floor of a 30-story building called a Mayday. The elevator malfunctioned after the hose team exited the elevator two floors below the fire floor. The aforementioned firefighter, who remained in the car, wanted the elevator to go back down to the lobby for reinforcements; instead, it went up several floors above the fire. There he forced open the door and got out of the elevator.

Another elevator failed during this five-alarm fire. The elevator got stuck in the shaft because water from hose streams short-circuited the hoistway wires. Fortunately, firefighters were trapped in the car several floors below the fire.

A third elevator car had been summoned to the fire floor; the doors opened and the inside was incinerated.

Some firefighters say when you enter an elevator, you are entering a “coffin” since it’s so easy to die in this small space. Firefighters responding to fires in high-rise structures must be aware that elevators are deadly traps, regardless of whether they are equipped with “firefighter service” or not. Use extreme caution when using an elevator during a fire. Fire experience and testing has revealed flame, heat, and water can cause elevators to malfunction.

An eight-year study of 178 high-rise fires in New York City in which elevators with Phase I and Phase II “firefighter service” were used revealed the following disturbing findings:

  • 59 elevators failed either on arrival of the firefighters or during the fire.

  • 37 percent of the 59 failures were the result of fire or water damage to the elevator electrical system.

Because of the unreliability of elevators during high-rise fires, the Fire Department of New York recommends a Phase III elevator be installed in high-rise buildings. This type of elevator is enclosed and protected from smoke, water, and fire that can be used by firefighters and disabled people during a fire.

For more information on this subject, go to vincentdunn.com.

Deputy Chief Dunn (Ret., Fire Department of New York) is the author of a number of textbooks, including the new Strategy of Firefighting (Fire Engineering, 2007), Collapse of Burning Buildings (Fire Engineering, 1988), Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering, 1992), and Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (Fire Engineering, 1999).

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