Elevators 101: The Use of Elevators at High-Rise Fires

By Doug Leihbacher

At 8:30 p.m., your engine is dispatched second-due to a reported fire on the 22nd floor of a residential high-rise building. As second-due engine, your initial assignment is to assist the first-due engine company in supplying the standpipe siamese from the hydrant in the street and then to proceed to the fire floor to back up the first-due engine and truck with a hand-line. You have responded to this building before, and it has never been anything more than food on the stove. On arrival, you look up and down the building and see a smoke haze from approximately floors 20 to 25. As you assist with the supply line to the siamese, the first-due engine and truck report that the fire is on the 22nd floor. The engine will stretch from the standpipe outlet on the 21st floor in the south stairwell while the truck will control the door in the north stairwell pending ventilation. The chief designates the 20th floor as the staging floor.

A moment later, the engine reports that the windows have failed on the windward side of the fire apartment and fire is blowing out the apartment door and into the hallway like a blowtorch. Members are requesting a second line immediately. The chief directs your company to proceed into the lobby and take the elevator up to assist them. On entering the lobby, you see by the elevator floor indicator that the car is on the 20th floor, where the first-due companies exited. The lieutenant uses his elevator key in the fire service switch and turns it to the “on” setting to recall the elevator. The elevator does not respond. You press the lobby recall button, but the car will not return to the lobby. This leaves you with one rather unpleasant option. What happened?


Since the advent of high-rise buildings, there have been incidents in which firefighters have been killed or severely injured in uncontrolled elevators during high-rise firefighting operations. (See “Tragedy in a High-Rise, Memphis, Tennessee” by Joe E. Caldwell and Mark Chubb, Fire Engineering, March 1995, p. 49.) Moreover, many civilians have lost their lives when attempting to flee using the elevator when the elevator has opened on the fire floor. As a result, laws have been passed requiring the installation and retrofitting of fire service override systems (emergency service, fireman’s service, Fire Dept. Use, or firefighter’s service) in elevators throughout the country.

1. Photo by author.


When used properly, these systems prevent elevator use by fleeing occupants and enable the fire department to quickly recall elevators to the lobby. These systems give us manual control over all automatic elevator controls in the cars, providing a greater margin of safety for firefighters and building occupants. The standards for fire service and elevator safety are found in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Code, section A 17.1 and rule 211.3. They provide for uniform standards throughout the country when elevators are installed and, as older elevators are upgraded, greater uniformity, dependability, and simplicity of operations. However, there can be some variations from region to region, particularly in enforcement. Therefore, consider the procedures discussed here as general guidelines.

(2, 3) Typical three-position lobby key panels. The older style includes a key position for “normal,” “fire service,” and “bypass.” The newer style has fire service “on” or “off” instead of “normal.” (Photos by Brian Johnson.)


Even though fire service override systems can make elevators safer, the use of elevators by fire personnel at high-rise fires is inherently hazardous. A study by the FDNY Fire Prevention Bureau found that fire service ovverride systems either failed or malfunctioned at one-third of the major high-rise fires in New York City during the 1990s, according to Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn in his book Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (Fire Engin-eering, 1999). Use them with caution, and avoid them altogether whenever possible. Elevator use should depend on fire floor location. Many departments’ standard operating procedures (SOPs) say to forgo using the elevators if the fire is below the sixth floor. When the fire is above this level, speed and fatigue become factors. Gaining and keeping control of the elevators then becomes necessary to safely transport crews to the upper floors of high-rise buildings. However, once you have gained control of the elevators, you must manage them properly. Otherwise, they may have to be reset in the machine room on the top floor or penthouse level of the building, an unmanageable option.

Training and practice are essential for members to learn how to properly handle elevators under fire conditions. If you find that your training is often limited because it will inconvenience building occupants, train on the weekends.


The fire service override system allows firefighters to take elevators out of automatic operation and place them under manual control. This manual control is divided into three phases.

Phase 1 (firefighter’s emergency recall) refers primarily to the fire service switch in the lobby. It is used to recall all cars nonstop to the lobby level. When it is activated, it overrides all manual signals and call buttons throughout the building and in the elevator cars. In short, it recalls elevators to the lobby with or without passengers and regardless of which buttons have been pushed in the elevator cars or on the upper floors of the building. Phase 1 is usually activated manually by fire personnel from the lobby. However, many elevators are also tied into the building’s fire alarm system. When this is the case, Phase 1 may also be initiated by an activated smoke alarm on an up-per-floor elevator lobby or in the elevator hoistway. Some fire alarm systems may recall elevators with other fire detection devices. In this case, all elevator cars will be recalled to the lobby (or designated recall floor) automatically, with their doors open on your arrival. Tying Phase 1 into the smoke alarm system provides greater safety for building occupants and prevents cars from stopping at and opening up on the fire floor.

Phase 2 refers to the fire service controls in the elevator car. These allow firefighters to manually control the elevator from inside the car. Once an elevator car is placed into Phase 2 operation, the lobby key switch (used to initiate Phase 1) cannot override it. Note: During a working high-rise fire, do not under any circumstances use an elevator that is not equipped with Phase 2 fire service. Also, avoid an elevator equipped with fire service that is not working properly.

Phase 3 is associated with the building fire/smoke alarm system and applies when a fire or smoke is present on the lobby level. If a smoke detector activates in the lobby, the elevator cars will not return there but will be recalled to a predesignated floor other than the lobby, such as the second floor or basement. When Phase 3 has been activated, fire personnel will not be able to recall the car to the lobby but will have to go the designated alternate floor to get into the car. However, the car’s location will be displayed above the elevator in the lobby.


Elevators with fire service systems are generally outfitted with a three-position, key-operated switch in both the lobby and elevator cars. The key configuration on the lobby panel and elevator car panel will vary, depending on the age of the elevator and the standards in effect when the fire service system was installed. The newer systems have “on,” “off,” and “bypass” key positions in the lobbies and “on,” “off,” and “hold” key positions in the cars. Older systems may be labeled “firefighter’s service” or “normal” instead of “on” and “off.” What do these mean?

“On” is both a lobby panel and car panel key position that places the system into fire service. It is found on newer installations. Switching the key to the “on” position engages the fire service system. Turning the lobby panel to “on” activates Phase 1 and recalls the elevators. Turning the car panel to “on” activates Phase 2, manual control of the car. The “on” position replaces the key position labeled “fireman’s service” in older installations.

“Off” is both a lobby panel and car panel key position. Turning the car panel switch to “off” will return the elevator car from Phase 2 to Phase 1 elevator operation and return the car to the lobby for use by later arriving units, provided that the lobby panel is keyed to the “on” position. Switching the lobby switch to “off” will disengage the elevators from fire service and return them back to normal functioning. “Off” replaces the key position labeled “normal” in older installations.

“Hold” is a car panel key position used to keep the car on the floor you exited with the doors open. You can remove the firefighter’s service key from the panel when it is in the “hold” position, and the car won’t move from that position until you return with the key. You should use it with caution during a working high-rise fire because it prohibits the car from being recalled.

“Bypass” is a key position found only on the lobby panel. This function restores the elevator to normal operation even though the alarm system may not have been reset. For example, after a fire where the alarm system tripped and placed the elevators into Phase 1, there may still be some residual smoke, which prevents the elevator system from being reset. However, it may be advantageous to place the elevators back in service in the “normal” mode before resetting the smoke alarm. You can do this by switching the system to “bypass” in the lobby, which takes the smoke alarm out of the loop. There is no “bypass” position in the car panel. Note: The “bypass” button replaces the “reset” button found in older installations.


Proper procedures for the first-arriving units at a high-rise fire requiring the use of an elevator are as follows:

On your arrival in the lobby, contact the building’s fire safety director, if one is present, to verify the location and extent of the fire and life hazard. Then proceed to the elevator bank. If they have been activated by a smoke detector alarm, the elevators should be waiting in the lobby in the open position.

If the elevators are not in the lobby, use your elevator key to activate the fire service switch to recall them. This places the elevators into Phase 1 operation. When the elevators arrive, remove the key, leaving it in the “on” position, and enter the elevator. If properly installed and maintained, the keyway will allow the removal of the key while in the fire service position (this is known as the “on” position in newer installations).

Note: In some older fire service installations that have not been updated, it is not possible to remove the key while it is in the fire service position. When this is the case, once the car has arrived at the lobby with doors open, turn the key to deactivate fire service Phase 1 and remove the key for use in the elevator car. Fire service should reactivate once the key is inserted in the elevator car panel.

You initiate Phase 2 elevator operations when you insert the fire service key into the panel on the interior of the elevator car. Phase 2 allows you to maintain manual control from inside the car. All automatic functions are inoperative during Phase 2 operation—you must press and hold all buttons for normal functions to occur. You can remove the elevator key in all positions of the car panel in newer installations (“on,” “off,” and “hold”).

Once inside the car, place the key in the cylinder on the fire service panel and turn it to “on” (or the “fire service” position in older installations). In newer or recently upgraded elevators, the fire service key panel inside the elevator car will light up, letting you know that Phase 2 is ready to be activated. (If it isn’t, make sure that the lobby keyway is in the “on” position.) Manually close the elevator car door by pressing and holding the “door close” button until the door closes completely. Next, press the “call cancel” (“reset” in older installations) button to clear the floor selection panel of any previous floor selections that might have been made. Press the floor you wish to go to (at least two floors below the fire). If you accidentally press the wrong floor, press the “call cancel” or “reset” button again and then press the proper floor button. On arrival at the selected floor, the door will not open until you press and hold the “door open” button. For safety, the door control button has a constant pressure feature. If you lift your finger off the button before the door is fully open, it will close again.

A car in Phase 2 operation answers only signals from inside the car. Any signals from a call button on any floor will be ignored, including signals from firefighters in the lobby. Moreover, it is not possible to override the controls in the car from the fireman’s ser-vice switch in the lobby. Thus, later-arriving firefighters will not be able to recall the car to the lobby, and the car will be unavailable for fire department use. This is what happened in the scenario described at the beginning of this article. Firefighters exiting the car left the car in either Phase 2 fire service or “hold.” The car, therefore, ignored signals recalling it to the lobby. That is why it is unwise to leave an unattended car in “fire service” or “hold” on the staging floor at a working high-rise fire. To discourage this, in older installations, you cannot remove the key from the elevator car’s panel in the fire service mode, only in “hold” and “normal” modes. Remember, you can only reset the car while inside the car, not from the lobby. There is little justification for leaving a car in “hold” at a working fire. If you have selected the proper floor, you no longer need the elevator and can free it for use by later-arriving units. If the first-arriving companies need to exit the floor, they can do so by the fire stairs if access to the stairs in ensured.

When exiting the car, the member operating the fire service key has three options. The first is to hold the car on the floor. Do this by switching the key to “hold” and removing the key with the doors in the fully open position. The car will remain on the floor with the doors open, but be aware that now you cannot recall the car from the lobby. If you need assistance quickly, it isn’t coming with that car. If you intend to hold the car, leave a tool in the doorway as a chock to prevent the door from closing unintentionally.

The second and perhaps best option is to assign a trained firefighter to the elevator car. This member’s job will be to maintain control of the car and transfer members and equipment to and from the lobby. This member remains with the elevator car at all times and manually operates the elevator with the key in the fire service (Phase 2) position. However, he must be trained in elevator use and have a radio to communicate with members in the lobby and the staging area. Who can you use for this position? One suggestion is the first-due ladder company driver who, if the fire is on a floor above the reach of the aerial, will not be needed to raise it and can proceed into the building with the inside crew. Do not give this job to a building employee.

The third option is to switch the car to “off” or “normal” with the doors open when exiting and then press “lobby.” Do this when no one can be spared to operate the elevator. If done properly, it will allow the car to reset and be recalled to the lobby or designated floor. In newer elevators, the reset time is immediate, and if the lobby panel is in Phase 1, the elevator will be recalled to the lobby immediately.

To do this with an older system can require coordination to transfer control between the member exiting the car on the upper floor and the member awaiting the return of the car in the lobby or designated floor. The two members must be in contact by portable radio. Some older elevators may have a reset time of two minutes.

The member exiting on the upper floor must switch the car from “on” to “off” once all members have exited the car and the doors are fully open. At that point, he must notify the member in the lobby awaiting the car, who then has to reset the lobby panel to “normal.” This takes the elevator car out of Phase 2 and puts it back into automatic (normal) mode. Switching the key to “fire service” in the lobby then reestablishes Phase 1, and the car can be recalled. In some older installations, the member in the lobby must first switch to “normal,” wait 20 seconds in “normal,” and then switch back to fire service. This requires a degree of sophisticated coordination and training, and the member in the lob-by must have an elevator key.

  • Do not take the elevator to the fire floor. Stop at least two floors below the fire. The heat from the fire can cause wires to short and activate the hallway call buttons on the fire floor. This has caused elevators to stop on the fire floor and expose exiting building occupants to severe fire conditions. As a result, elevators are no longer recommended as a legitimate means of egress; the public is advised to take the fire stairs instead.


(4) A typical key panel found in an elevator car containing a “call cancel” button; a three-position keyway; and an indicator light, which is illuminated when fire service override is in operation. (Photos by Brian Johnson.)


Unexpectedly arriving on the fire floor can be just as dangerous for firefighters as it is for civilians. Placing the elevator car in Phase 2 should lessen the danger. However, few fire service systems are well maintained; do not assume that they will operate properly. Problems can result from different causes. Older installations frequently are incorrectly wired. An elevator mechanic making a repair could have inadvertently crossed a circuit, or the elevator may have been vandalized. Moreover, heat, smoke, or water conditions in the shaft can initiate an elevator malfunction even in well-maintained elevator equipment. Therefore, the movement of elevators in fire service mode can be unreliable, and an elevator that is not working properly may respond unpredictably.

For safety, exit the elevator two floors below the fire (five floors below in tall high-rises). Why two floors? This provides a margin of error if your floor count is wrong. Many buildings do not count the 13th floor. Other buildings do not count the lobby as a floor so that the floor above the lobby level is counted as the first floor rather than the second. Still other buildings have a mezzanine level, which is not given a floor number. Also be aware that the reports you receive from the dispatcher may not be accurate. The caller may have called from a floor above the fire and the actual fire floor may be several floors below. If the building is equipped with a lobby annunciator panel, check it and assume the lowest floor showing smoke detector activation to be the fire floor. Make every effort to precisely determine the actual fire floor before entering the elevator.

(5) An older style elevator car key panel. The “reset” button functions as a “call cancel” button.


Once you have determined the fire floor and have switched to fire service Phase 2 in the car, the elevator should be under your manual control. As an additional safety measure, before going directly up to the floor you’ve chosen, stop in five-floor increments to shine a flashlight up the shaft to check for the presence of smoke. This will also tell you if the elevator is working properly. If the car does not stop, it may be malfunctioning; try to get it to stop immediately by using the “call cancel” button. In the worst-case scenario, if the car should go to the fire floor, remember: The door will not open unless you press and hold the “door open” button. Leave the door closed, press the “call cancel” button, and select another floor below the fire.

  • Do not overcrowd elevators. It is vitally important that the elevators operate properly and do not get stuck in the hoistway. The capacity of most standard passenger elevators varies with the square footage of the elevator car floor. The larger the floor, the more weight the elevator can lift. The natural tendency is to try to get both the first-due engine and truck companies into the elevator. Unfortunately, overloading the elevator can cause it to stall. This is especially true of older elevators that have not been properly serviced and maintained. By law, the capacity of the elevator must be posted in the elevator car. When estimating how many members can safely be carried in the elevator, read the posting and consider that the weight of each firefighter with tools and SCBA can approach 300 pounds.

Overloading the elevator can also severely restrict your movement. The elevator car is a small box. If an overcrowded elevator opens on the fire floor, members may not have enough room to don their facepieces, get low, or use their tools to force the doors shut.

  • Know when to walk up. Because elevators do not always operate properly, avoid using them whenever possible. Check your department’s SOPs for guidelines. Generally, safe practice suggests that at any high-rise fire, companies should avoid the elevator and walk up to any fire on the sixth floor or below. Above this level, fatigue and the time factor may require the use of an elevator.
  • Before entering the elevator, check the location of the fire stairwells. Knowing the locations of the fire stairwells can make operations easier and safer on the upper floors. Check their locations while you are still in the lobby awaiting the arrival of the elevator cars. Also check the distance and direction to the stairwells. Some are close to the elevator; others are remote. Not all stairwells in high-rise buildings have standpipes. The engine company should note the location of the stairwell with the standpipe. If there is a “YOU ARE HERE” sign next to the elevator, study it. It can provide valuable information about the layout of the upper floors.
  • Firefighters entering an elevator should be equipped with radios, SCBAs, forcible entry tools, chocks, and elevator keys. Should something go wrong with the elevator, this equipment may help you out of a dangerous situation.
  • Use caution when shutting off power to the building. Many chief officers call for the main service panel to the building to be shut down as a matter of routine. In buildings that are not equipped with elevators, this is a wise move; but in elevator buildings, the elevators may stop functioning once the power has been shut down. Elevators are rarely set up to operate from auxiliary power. Some SOPs require that the municipal elevator mechanic respond to all major high-rise fires.
  • Check, inspect, and train with the elevators in your response area. During building inspections, check the elevators for proper operation. Use discretion to determine if it will inconvenience building occupants. Similarly, when responding to nonfire emergencies, use your elevator key to operate the elevator so that you become more familiar with fire service operations.

You may find some buildings that do not even have fire service installed. Other buildings may have an older version that needs to be upgraded. Still others may have fire service that is not working properly. For example, the car may not recall when placed in Phase 1 from the lobby. Or, the car may recall to the lobby, but the car door may not open. Others will recall but when switched into Phase 2 will nevertheless stop at every floor where a call button was activated. It is essential to know whether an elevator car is working properly before a fire occurs. Refer any violations to the municipal elevator inspector for follow-up. Establish a good working relationship with the elevator inspector.

Check to make sure your key works in the elevator. The elevator key you carry should be standardized and work throughout your district. However, do not assume this to be the case. Unless you specify a specific key in your fire district’s code, different elevator installers will use different keys. If all elevator keys are standardized in your city or district, your job will be a lot easier. Simply have one made and keep it on the apparatus or with your turnout gear. For example, in my city, Yonkers, New York, the Otis 1520 key (the Yale 2642) is the required standard for all elevators. Note: This does not refer to lunar or drop keys used to open hoistway doors.


1. Make sure your elevator key fits the elevator panel.

2. Switch the elevator to Phase 1 and see that it recalls properly.

3. Determine if you can remove the key from the lobby panel while in the fire service position.

4. When inside the car, switch to fire service and check to see if the “call cancel” feature works.

5. Determine that the car does not open on floors other than the one you select by sending a firefighter to a specified floor by stairs to press the “call” button.

6. Be sure the door closes when you lift your finger off the “door open” button.

7. Test the “hold” function. Be sure that the elevator door stays open when on “hold.”

Thanks to Captain Art Tobin, Yonkers Fire Department; Lou Giavenetti, elevator inspector; and Gary Seigel, elevator rescue instructor and FDNY (ret.), for their assistance with this article.

DOUG LEIHBACHER is a captain and 24-year veteran of the Yonkers (NY) Fire Department.

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