Evolution of an Elevator Task Group Project


As far back as the early 1970s, a sign at every elevator lobby/hall call station warned occupants not to take the elevator during a fire. This caution was well-founded, since there is a history of incidences in which building occupants were found injured or dead in elevators during or after a fire. Failures of the building systems, as well as elevator malfunctions brought about by the products of combustion from the fire environment, were among the causes for these injuries and deaths. The elevator malfunctions were caused primarily by the heat’s melting the elevator hall call button that calls the elevator to the fire floor and the opening of the car and hoistway door on arrival.

As a result of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, code provisions for emergency egress from tall building are being analyzed. There is renewed interest in using elevators for occupant egress and firefighter access.

Many papers and articles have been generated over the past few years explaining the benefits of using elevators for occupant egress in high-rise fires. Proponents of this system and similar systems have used the various forms of media to push their particular proposals. All these efforts have been well-intentioned, but they will be just articles and ideas until the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A17 Standards Committee and the model building codes vote on and approve any changes in elevator design or performance. Some of the proposals were better thought through, and some were more practical than others. That is the reason the ASME Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators A-17, 1/CSA B44 Task Group (TG) Project was initiated.

The project consists of the following components:

  • The ASME A17.1/CSA B44 Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators Task Group: its goal, personnel makeup, and how we have gotten to this point.
  • The Use of Elevators for Occupant Egress, including Elevator Emergency Operation (EEO).
  • The Use of Elevators by Firefighters, including new requirements for Firefighter Emergency Operations (FEO) and other safety improvements.


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(1) Lobby sign. (Photo by C.J. Anderson Co.)

The goals of the TG initiative are to examine the use of elevators as a means of evacuation in future high-rise buildings, to determine how firefighters can safely operate elevators during building fires, and to identify ways to increase protection for firefighters from the elements of fire as they travel to the fire areas by way of the elevator hoistway. These studies are taking place in an office building with automatic sprinklers.




A workshop on the Use of Elevators in Fires and Other Emergencies was held March 2-4, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia. Cosponsored by the ASME, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the International Code Council (ICC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the U.S. Access Board, and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the workshop focused on two general topics: the use of elevators for occupant egress and for firefighter use.

The 22 firefighters of all ranks from the United States and Canada who attended the workshop acquainted the other 125 attendees with the areas in which the fire service believes improvements are necessary in the elevators of the future. The consensus of all the delegates was specific on two very vital improvements. The first was the need to establish a uniform key for Firefighter Emergency Operations (FEO-K1). This was developed and adopted in the 2007 edition of the ASME A17.1/CSA B44 Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators. The second improvement the fire service sought was to establish a safer way for firefighters to be transported up into the building, incorporating many of the building construction and other safety features discussed in detail at the workshop. The result was the Robust Fire Service Elevator (RFSE) (see below).

During the workshop’s plenary sessions, selected papers were presented, and attendees participated in breakout group sessions. The breakout sessions were used to brainstorm various ideas and develop recommendations for the future. The workshop’s goal was to formulate suggested code provisions on the use of elevators during a high-rise fire that would be submitted to various code-writing groups to help improve codes and standards.

Following the Atlanta workshop, the Workshop Steering Committee, made up of representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations, met to review these proposals and assign them to the appropriate organizations for consideration when the project was completed.

Two ASME A17 TGs were formed; they were to review the suggestions from the Atlanta workshop. Each breakout group provided summaries the TGs used to establish the subject matter workload. This work has been completed, and all duplicate items have been combined into related groupings of subject matter. In addition, the TGs have done the following:

  • Developed a prioritized list of the issues TG members want to pursue.
  • Conducted a hazard analysis (HA) of the prioritized list of issues to see if they were feasible and to mitigate any residual hazards. An HA involves making a list of everything that possibly could go wrong, finding a solution for each, and then making a list of what could possibly go wrong with those solutions, continuing until every possibility has been exhausted. The Use by Firefighters TG has nearly completed its work and is expected to finish the Occupant Egress TG this year (2010).
  • After this work has been completed, the TGs will draft code revisions for those proposals that survive the process. The ASME A17 Standards Committee will then review and approve the code revisions. Recommendations for other codes, such as building codes, electrical codes, life safety codes, and others, will be forwarded to the appropriate code-writing bodies.



Robust Fire Service Elevator


RFSE provides greater protection, allowing the elevator to continue to operate so firefighters can complete their operations. A few proposed enhancements among the 20 extensive recommendations include the following:

  • Protecting the elevator machine room and hoistway from water by using drains, sloping floors, or dams around hoistways.
  • Protection from smoke and heat may include pressurization for the hoistway, stairwell, and elevator lobby.
  • Direct access to the protected lobby and stairwell that contain fire department standpipe connections.
  • Protection of primary and backup power supplies.
  • Prohibiting sprinklers in the hoistway (excluding the pit) and machine room.
  • Standardizing the fire alarm interface.


The firefighter’s group at the workshop made it clear that the fire service did not expect miracles but that it did expect a much higher degree of reliability and robustness from elevators of the future and that it was unacceptable for elevators to fail during a fire. Although we realize that there can never be a guarantee of nonfailure, designing the elevator to be more reliable in the hostile and destructive environment of a fire was a means to that desired end. We do not expect to drive through floors of fire, but we cannot accept or work with systems that fail because of conditions that can be eliminated by changes in design. If water is the enemy of elevator electronics, then control it by diverting or eliminating it. The elevator hoistway, the machine rooms, and their environments cannot be made waterproof beyond the first time that that equipment is worked on or repaired. The intent may be there, but the practicality of its being relied on is not. If smoke and heat are disruptive to the controller systems, then create designs to isolate the controllers from the smoke and heat by pressurization, ventilation, or other improved construction procedures. In other words, make it a more robust system. Firefighters at the Atlanta 2004 workshop chose the term “robust,” since they were emphatic that a term had to be adopted that reflected the difference between a regular elevator equipped with FEO and one being developed with all of the improvements envisioned. As noted previously, many fire service leaders over the years have published papers calling for improvements in elevator design that would enhance firefighter safety. Among them were Phase III elevator (i.e., waterproof elevator), hardened elevator, fire service access elevator, and designated fire service elevator.

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(2) Designated level (DL). (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
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(3) Lobby FAID.

The fire service knew of the papers; but, unfortunately, those ideas never moved beyond the published articles. Those ideas were included in the deliberations in Atlanta and served as a contributing basis for these improvements. Some of the concepts were subject to HA and were found to be impossible (i.e., waterproof elevator) to design or maintain throughout their life. Other ideas are considered unsafe (e.g., ignore the hoistway door locks and run the elevator even if the doors are open). A major point in the RFSE is the direct access to a protected lobby and stairwell containing the fire department standpipe connections. This is just one of the 20 significant changes recommended by the A17 TG.

A survey of firefighters across the country indicates that the number of elevators used for firefighting operations varies from one to six. Experienced firefighters have stated that the fire service must be able to count on at least two elevators at all times. During high-rise fires in the past, elevators on many occasions were not available because of shutdowns for various reasons, including problems operating cars, routine maintenance, modernization programs, and emergency medical services operations in the building prior to their arrival. Therefore, there should be three Robust elevators to provide a minimum of two on arrival. Keep in mind that these elevator concepts are being designed and introduced for the mega high-rise office buildings of the future. They will have very large footprints, and every firefighter has walked great distances in existing buildings trying to find fire command rooms placed by architects with no input from firefighters. If these changes make it all the way through the process, the result will be a much safer operation for firefighters.





Elevator Emergency Operation (EEO)


Elevator Emergency Operation (EEO) is intended to get the building occupants off the five affected floors near the fire floor—the fire floor itself and the two floors above and below that floor. This would be accomplished by a dedicated EEO program designed into the elevator control system software. This is considered a partial building evacuation system (EEO), as opposed to a full building evacuation (FBE) system, which would evacuate all floors and occupants. Using elevators for emergency evacuation of building occupants is wonderful, and many people have had various ideas as to how to accomplish this, but they may conflict with the needs of the fire service. As firefighters enter the building, they need to take control of the elevators immediately by manually operating the designated level firefighter’s FEO key switch. Even more of an interruption to their plans for EEO is the fact that a Fire Alarm Initiating Device (FAID) will place the elevators into Automatic Phase I Recall operation as soon as a smoke condition operates a smoke detector in any elevator lobby, machine room, or hoistway.

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(4) Sky lobby.

It would not be safe to continue to use elevators for egress once smoke is in any of these areas. In this instance, the cars will be down at the designated level (DL) while the firefighters of the first-due companies are still responding to the building. If the DL detector is activated, the elevators will recall to the alternate level. The fire service members of the A17 TGs have worked diligently to keep this in front of all concerned. It is important to note that both the proponents of using elevators for occupant egress and those who raise questions about it have one very clear and common goal—the safety of building occupants. Firefighters have the added responsibilities of gaining access to the fire floor and ensuring the safety of our firefighters attempting to move up toward the fire floor area to fight the ever-growing fire and move those injured and threatened by fire to a safe area. The above clearly shows that stairways cannot be replaced and are still an important element of the building emergency evacuation component.


How Would EEO Work?


Since we are still working at this point and none of this subject has even reached the ASME A17.1 Standards Committee for a vote, it is envisioned as operating in this manner. As an FAID on a fire floor remote from the elevator lobby operates, the automatic EEO program would be initiated. Elevators in the building would respond to the five affected floors to pick up assembled occupants for evacuation and take them to the DL. They will not be able to use the elevators to go to any other floor than the ground floor. These occupants would wait for removal from their floor, and the access- and mobility-challenged occupants would be removed first. Others will be removed until either all are transported to the designated level or Phase I Recall is initiated.

The use of visual signage, video monitors, and verbal announcements is planned for keeping the crowds informed. Those who do not want to experience the delay of waiting may choose to use the stairs. People on other floors will not be able to use the elevators at all; they will be instructed to remain where they are. The concept calls for the elevator program to clear all of the affected floors first; then, as floors are emptied before Phase I is activated, it would park one car at the lowest of the five affected floors to pick up stragglers and park the remainder of the cars at the DL. This would allow them to be immediately available when the Phase I key is turned on. The reason that time becomes important is obvious: The clock is ticking toward the initiation of Phase I Recall, either by manual or automatic activation.

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(5) FEO DL switch. (Photo by C.J. Anderson Co.)

At a recent meeting, the word “delay” was discussed for removal/replacement from the HA pages referring to the result of having people go and wait in an elevator lobby vs. heading into the stairwells. This wordsmithing by some members is an attempt to cleanse the document of words they consider to be too scary and to acknowledge that waiting in the lobby has its drawbacks. When the term “overwhelmed” was discussed in previous work, referring to the fire department operations, they were successful in having it deleted because it was too disturbing to think about. Any fire officer who has ever run a major fire would agree that this change is unrealistic.


How Would Full Building Evacuation (FBE) Work?


Until now, only EEO has been discussed. There is a second component to this concept that calls for FBE. This concept would be activated from the fire command room panel in situations where the immediate evacuation of all is a priority, and this also would be ended once Phase I Recall is activated. Although we have not worked on this concept as much as EEO, it would mirror the EEO in many aspects, just doing a complete evacuation of the building. Although nothing has been written for this, it must have a manual activation to ensure the security for such a drastic step.


Phase I Emergency Recall Operation


Once Phase I Recall is activated, all EEO stops, and the elevators respond to the recall level (RL) per the requirements of ASME A17.1/CSA B44, section (manual operation) and (automatic operation). This is the area in which firefighters have had to make sure that the Phase I Operation is not hindered or compromised in any way by the desire to run the EEO to accomplish the proponents’ end results. As firefighters, we do not care what they do with the elevators prior to Phase I Recall; but, after that, the elevators belong to the incident commander (IC) by code requirement. If fire conditions permit, it has been envisioned that the IC will have an opportunity to allow selected elevators to continue on the EEO plan and will have the remaining elevators available at the DL, to allow firefighting operations to move forward to rescue occupants and extinguish the fire. The decision to allow a selective continuation on EEO will be the IC’s decision and is not controlled by any other entity.

Note: It is absolutely vital that you understand this fact: Because none of the work of the ASME A17 TG has been submitted or approved for action, none of it actually exists at this moment. That is the reason publishing draft standards of other groups that state how their elevators will potentially operate is very misleading. How they may want elevators to behave is not in their domain. It is the responsibility of the ASME A17 Standards Committee.

During this long project, the concept that nothing shall interfere with Phase I Recall has been the primary focus of firefighters and many others at the table. On the other hand, there are groups that look for ways to prevent the operation of FAIDs that activate Phase I Recall. The proponents fear that the FAID operation will interfere with their planned showcasing of this system working to its full capacity. The word “prevent” in its normal usage would indicate that something bad had to be stopped or eliminated, and this is very troubling.

Some use the same language when referring to the arriving firefighters, indicating that they would prefer to find ways to keep them from manually activating the FEO system. All of the TG members have been very much aware of the need to provide quicker and safer ways to improve occupant egress from future high-rise buildings, for the access- and mobility-challenged. But, the ability to allow the fire service to do its job cannot be ignored or compromised in those efforts. On the day of the fire, all of these good people—the code enforcement officers, elevator designers, fire protection engineers, standards publisher, and the other concerned groups associated with this project—will be in their homes or offices, far from the danger and chaos of the fire. It is important to recognize that this future building will be fully sprinklered, having a complete fire alarm system and many other fire protection features that we could only dream of in the past. Equally significant, the expertise of the elevator industry will play an even more important role, for if the elevator system is not properly designed, installed, and maintained, the only ones who will be hurt will be those firefighters going up to two floors below the fire floor.




The agencies who have attended the Use of Elevators by Firefighters meetings have varied as interest and workload rose and fell, but just as with the Occupant Egress group, the “core” attendees faithfully continued working together to finish the job we started. The participants included representatives from the firefighters’ group, elevator manufacturers, fire protection engineers, and code enforcement officials (city, state, federal); private industry; fire alarm industry; access and mobility; federal government agencies (NIST and GSA); university educators (John Jay College, New York City, and the University of Illinois at Chicago); and codes and standards organizations (ASME, NFPA, and ICC). This listing is similar to the list of agencies that attended the Use of Elevators for Occupant Egress sessions. At times, this group was much smaller than the previous group, but the intense examination of the work continued, and we are closer to a finish on this project.

If we were to visit a firehouse kitchen table in any city that has elevators, we would hear stories of near and actual disasters involving fire companies using elevators and being transported up into the high-rise buildings in their communities during a fire. The stories are the same, only the building addresses and names on the apparatus doors vary.

The ever increasingly sophisticated FEO control operating system used in elevators since the early 1970s was designed to provide a degree of protection for firefighters operating elevators up into the building to extinguish a fire. The fire service is familiar with these systems: Phase I Emergency Recall Operation and Phase II Emergency In-Car Operation. In every firehouse in the land, members relate stories of how elevators have failed to operate properly during a recent fire for various reasons, but usually they include failure to arrive at the proper floor, failure to operate properly or at all, malfunction, or elevator unavailability.

Across the continent, the procedures used by fire companies varied as to whether or not to use the elevators on arrival. Some used the FEO Phase II system with caution, while others chose the stairs. Whatever the reasons were, the history of such events has been the driving force for change. The fire service, the elevator design engineers, and the members of the ASME A17.1 Emergency Operations Committee have worked together over the years to create an improved and reliable means to ensure the safety of firefighters using elevators during a fire in a building.




The path to success is still an unfinished road. As with everything that the fire service attempts to do to improve safety for the public and responders, we run into significant opposition from those entrenched interests and their friends whose only issues are cost and rentable space. That influence was evident when the ASME A17 TG agreed that the concepts for the Robust elevator terminology and the need for a minimum of three of these elevators in the new high-rise office buildings be submitted to the International Building Code (IBC) process in 2009. (Note: RFSEs are called “Fire Service Access Elevators” in the IBC.)

The IAFF, the National Elevator Industry, Inc. (NEII), and the Fire Safety Directors Association of Greater New York (FSDAGNY) sponsored the submission. The IAFF represented the organized firefighters of North America; NEII, the elevator industry organization; and the FSDAGNY, the New York City High-Rise Building Group. It would seem that the submissions spoke for the strong support from these important groups. Regrettably, both submissions were defeated. Building owners’ groups, including the federal government’s GSA, spoke against them. We will resubmit these same proposals for reconsideration to the IBC in the future. They are too important to safe and effective fireground operations to be left in the limbo of the negative vote.

In the near future, the ASME A17.1 Standards Committee and CSA B44 Technical Committee will be receiving all of the issues covered in this article as our groups finish their work. It has taken the ASME A17 TGs time to develop answers and solutions, and our pathway has resulted in an extensive documentation of what, why, and how we engaged in this long project. The chair of the TGs anticipated that the ASME process would be successful and that we would then move forward to include these vital measures in the various codes.

You can support the success of this project by letting your voice be heard in support of the issues as they surface in the code- and standard-making process. The opposition will work very hard to defeat any measures it considers needless expenditures that might cost in terms of rentable floor space. It is vital that the fire service speak with the representatives of the Building Departments in their respective communities, as they have the power to implement proposed changes to the IBC. Start lobbying your local representatives who will be attending the IBC code hearings now; provide fellow public safety officials with the needed background information to allow them to make an informed decision and vote. All firefighters must speak up and actively support these important changes.

District Chief John K. O’Donnell, Boston (MA) Fire Department; Battalion Chief Quentin Maver, Charlotte (NC) Fire Department; Captain David Beste, Bellevue (WA) Fire Department; Edward Donoghue, Edward A. Donoghue Associates, Inc.; Matthew Martin, Schindler Elevator Corporation; David McColl, Otis Elevator-Canada; and Brian Black, National Elevator Industry, Inc., also contributed to this article.


Previous ASME A17 TG Work


The ASME A17 Task Groups (TGs) have been meeting in Boston every three months since the fall of 2004.The meetings were usually four days at first, and it was standard practice for the Occupant Egress TG and the Use by Firefighters TG to rotate from the first two days to the second set of two days.

During the past year (2009), we have met for three-day sessions; Occupant Egress was covered for two days, and Use by Firefighters for one day, because the Firefighters’ TG was closer to finishing its work.

It is important to know the makeup of the membership of these TGs, so you can see that this initiative was never a one-sided argument at the table. The agency representatives who participated in this TG will be listed so that all can see each agency’s impact on the project.

At first, attendance was like a rotating chair: So many new faces were appearing. Then, just as quickly, the attendance dropped as the would-be members saw the heavy workload involved. We have maintained a “core” group during this five-year period that has been faithfully attending each TG meeting, with the majority attending both sessions.

Why did it take more than five years to complete the project? It would have been a simple task to just write out some popular new requirements or to cut and paste them from articles in leading architectural and fire protection publications here and in Europe. Some government agencies, such as NIST and GSA, as well as private agencies, such as the ICC and the NFPA, have published standards concerning both subjects, some as far back as 2003.

Note that the Building Owners Management Association (BOMA) is missing from this list and has not attended any meetings of the TG, even though it had been invited.

In 2009, the ICC published changes in its International Building Code (IBC), and we should look forward to more firefighter-friendly changes in those standards in the future. If you want to know how codes can be written so quickly, visit the ICC Web site (www.ICCSAFE.ORG) and the NFPA Web site (www.nfpa.org).

The ASME TG has thoroughly examined each question using the Hazards Analysis format so that you can clearly see what was asked, how it was answered or addressed, and what was considered on every point discussed. This approach created a heavy workload, but it proved that we looked at everything possible, and from various angles. When a subject could not be effectively discussed during the limited time frame of a meeting, the matter was assigned to a smaller homework group that developed an answer between meetings. That answer was then published for discussion in the next meeting’s agenda. It is absolutely critical that these changes be done correctly the first time around, or the fire service community will lose faith in the process.

Having been a member of the ASME A17 Emergency Operations Committee for the past 16 years, I have spent countless hours working on revisions and changes to codes that were not sufficiently thought through the first time around. We have been working on HA, which has taken up a great deal of time, but it has resulted in proposed solutions that have been examined in depth.

Serving with me, representing the fire service community, on the TG for the past five years have been the following:

  • Captain David Beste, Bellevue (WA) Fire Department;
  • Battalion Chief Quentin Maver, Charlotte (NC) Fire Department; and
  • District Chief Kenneth O’Donnell, Boston (MA) Fire Department.


There were other friends at the table who supported the concepts firefighters feel are critical to the safety of the members of the firefighting community when engaged in fighting high-rise fires. Also present, however, were those who had on their agenda concerns about rentable space, building owners’ expenses, and how to eliminate second stairwells. With that in mind, we never had a meeting where there wasn’t at least one member of the fire service at the table.

JOHN J. O’DONOGHUE retired as assistant chief from the Cambridge (MA) Fire Department in December 2004, after 39 years of service. He is a member of the ASME A17.1 Emergency Operations Committee and represents the Department of Fire Services on the Massachusetts Board of Elevator Regulations. He is the International Association of Fire Fighters representative to ASME A17.1 Emergency Operations


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