Responding to Escalator Fires and Emergencies

By FRANK LEEB

Escalators, which quietly and effectively move millions of people daily, are commonly used in many occupancies. And yet, escalator fires and incidents constitute an uncommon response for firefighters.

(<b>1)</b> Examples of main line disconnects usually found at the top of the escalator and that are typically attached to a large junction box. (Photos by author.)
(1) Examples of main line disconnects usually found at the top of the escalator and that are typically attached to a large junction box. (Photos by author.)

Since its patent in 1892, escalator design has changed very little over the years. Escalators were once constructed with wooden steps; but in 1987, 31 people died at the King’s Cross station of the London Underground-including London Fire Brigade Firefighter Colin Townsley-when a fire broke out in the escalator. Today, modern escalator steps are constructed of lightweight forged aluminum, reducing-but not eliminating-the fire load.

(<b>2)</b> Examples of main line disconnects usually found at the top of the escalator and that are typically attached to a large junction box. (Photos by author.)
(2) Examples of main line disconnects usually found at the top of the escalator and that are typically attached to a large junction box. (Photos by author.)

Escalators are commonly found in ballparks, arenas, shopping malls, department stores, airports, universities, ferry terminals, cruise ship piers, public transportation centers, train stations, museums, movie theaters, and hotels. For aesthetic design reasons, escalators are often suspended in large open spaces to give the escalators a grand effect.

(3) An escalator emergency stop button.
(3) An escalator emergency stop button.

Components

Escalators are constructed of a mass of wires, relays, lubricating oil, and rubber wheels, adding up to a fire load capable of developing into a large and smoky fire. Primary tactics for a small fire should include using a dry chemical extinguisher. Fires that begin at the bottom of the escalator will travel up it quickly, requiring you to stretch and operate a handline. A fire that extends from the escalator will also require you to stretch a handline.

(6) The results of “chiseling“ the side of the step.
(4) Two cuts on the stair after the maul was used to remove the cutout.

In some escalator installations, removing the wall next to the escalator will facilitate quick access to the side and underside of the escalator for quick extinguishment. In many cases, such as in most malls and hotels, the escalator is suspended away from any walls, eliminating the option of quick side access to reach the fire. In these instances, cutting a step is a good option. Modern escalator steps are constructed of lightweight forged aluminum, which you can cut easily using a reciprocating saw.

(5) The results of striking with a maul without cuts from a reciprocating saw.
(5) The results of striking with a maul without cuts from a reciprocating saw.

Most modern escalators have emergency stop buttons at the top and bottom. Although these buttons stop the movement of the stairs, they do not remove power to the escalator components. Also located at the top and bottom of every escalator and inside the escalator pit under the escalator inspection plate is a red power removal button or switch. In most escalators, the main disconnect, known as the “main line disconnect,” is at the top of the escalator and is the primary disconnect firefighters should use to remove power to the escalator. Removing the power at this location will cut power to the unit from the disconnect junction box forward to the unit, with the junction box remaining energized.

(6) The results of “chiseling“ the side of the step.
6) The results of “chiseling“ the side of the step.

To remove power to this junction box, seek out an employee who knows the location of the electrical panel, which contains the power for the escalator. This can be time consuming and is only necessary if you need to operate in the escalator pit or if there is a fire in the vicinity of the main line disconnect. For every location that you remove power, you must follow lock-out/tag-out procedures or else a firefighter must remain at each location of power removal for the duration of the incident.

(7) Note the reinforced ribs on the underside of the step. Avoid this area when cutting from above.
(7) Note the reinforced ribs on the underside of the step. Avoid this area when cutting from above.

Many locations with escalators have transient visitors who may not be familiar with the building and its evacuation routes. Controlling evacuation and preventing panic from the large amount of black smoke an escalator fire can generate are initial considerations for the incident commander (IC). In addition, when a person is trapped by an escalator, crews can expect large and chaotic crowds to form, with many screaming and emotional onlookers.

(8) A safety comb.
(8) A safety comb.

A review of related incidents reveals that only 51 escalator fires were reported in New York City since 2009, a surprisingly low number considering the number of escalators in operation there. Although uncommon, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Battalion 46 units operated at two escalator incidents (one an escalator fire in a Target department store) in a 12-day span.

(9) The patient’s shoe remains in the escalator after the incident at Macy’s. Note the amount of space gained from the rabbit tool. The halligan was used to gain the needed clearance at this incident.
(9) The patient’s shoe remains in the escalator after the incident at Macy’s. Note the amount of space gained from the rabbit tool. The halligan was used to gain the needed clearance at this incident.

These two incidents provided an excellent opportunity to review the tactics and procedures of both operations as well as the results of the training that members of FDNY units Ladder 136, Ladder 138, and Squad 288 conducted on escalator steps in the days following the first incident. The Target escalator fire rendered the escalator steps as scrap and thus provided members with a perfect training opportunity; FDNY was granted permission to train using the scrap steps. The results of this training and the familiarity that members gained undoubtedly contributed to the safe and rapid removal of a female patient whose foot was trapped in a Macy’s escalator just 12 days after the Target escalator fire incident.

(10) The turnaround track is at the bottom of the escalator. Note the red emergency stop button in the pit, which will not remove power to the entire escalator, as power will still be in the unit from the main line disconnect down to this emergency stop button.
(10) The turnaround track is at the bottom of the escalator. Note the red emergency stop button in the pit, which will not remove power to the entire escalator, as power will still be in the unit from the main line disconnect down to this emergency stop button.

Target Escalator Fire

On March 25, 2015, at 0325 hours, FDNY Battalion 46 units were dispatched for an odor of smoke in the Target department store at 88-01 Queens Boulevard in Long Island City, New York. On arrival, Ladder 136 encountered a smoke condition on the third floor of Target and began a search for the cause. Ladder 136 quickly discovered a smoky fire burning in the drip pan beneath the escalator that extended toward the fourth floor. Ladder 136 relayed this information to Battalion 46, who in turn transmitted the 10-75 (FDNY’s code for a working fire) for fire in the store. Engine 287 stretched a hoseline from the standpipe with the assistance of Engine 289, while Ladder 138 conducted searches on the third and fourth floors and confirmed with security that all employees had been accounted for.

(11) For aesthetic design purposes, escalators are often suspended in large open spaces to give the escalators a grand effect.
(11) For aesthetic design purposes, escalators are often suspended in large open spaces to give the escalators a grand effect.

Ladder 136 removed power from the escalator and provided access for Engine 287’s hoseline. After the fire was placed “under control,” building personnel were directed to place the building fans in the “exhaust mode” to clear the building of the built-up smoke on the upper floors. No injuries were reported, and damage from this fire was limited to the escalator and some minor smoke damage on the floor above.

(12) You can open the floor cover inspection plate with a screwdriver and, in some cases, a halligan.
(12) You can open the floor cover inspection plate with a screwdriver and, in some cases, a halligan.

Macy’s Escalator Emergency

On April 6, 2015, less than two weeks after the Target escalator fire, FDNY Battalion 46 units Engine 287, Ladder 136, and Rescue 4 were dispatched to Macy’s department store at 90-01 Queens Boulevard (part of the Queens Center Mall)-just two blocks away from the previous fire in Target-for a report of a female with her foot caught in an escalator. On arrival, Engine 287 met with security, who advised that the patient was stuck in the escalator on the second floor. Arriving at the location, Engine 287 confirmed a trapped patient and relayed this information to Battalion 46, who relayed it to the Queens dispatcher and Ladder 136, which was just arriving on scene. Engine 287 began scene size-up and provided psychological first aid to the patient. On orders of Battalion 46, Engine 287 dispatched one firefighter to the top of the escalator to begin cutting power to the main line disconnect. Ladder 136 arrived on scene and began removing the yellow safety combs (which are used to keep body parts from entering this area of the escalator) in the area of the injured female’s trapped foot. After removing the safety combs, Ladder 136 inserted a halligan into the bottom plate and was able to gain enough space to free the patient’s trapped foot. Engine 287 then removed the patient to the awaiting emergency medical services (EMS) unit. EMS transported the patient to Elmhurst Hospital with relatively minor injuries.

(13) Access to the pit area may be through an aluminum floor cover inspection plate (above) or covered over by floor tile. You can also open this with a screwdriver and, in some cases, a halligan.
(13) Access to the pit area may be through an aluminum floor cover inspection plate (above) or covered over by floor tile. You can also open this with a screwdriver and, in some cases, a halligan.

Incident Considerations

Emergencies with escalators are a more common response than fires in escalators. Many of the same tactics employed for an escalator fire are also applicable to escalator emergencies.

On arrival, you must first confirm that the passenger emergency stop button has been pushed. This immediately stops the stairs from moving, but it does not remove power from the unit. In most cases, this button will have already been pressed, and the escalator has stopped. If the incident involves a body part pinned in the bottom of the stair near the yellow safety comb, the safety may have tripped, keeping the escalator stairs from moving. Do not assume the power to the escalator has been removed just because the stairs are not moving. The next step is to remove power to the main line disconnect, usually at the top of the escalator.

(1<b>4) </b>The step chain new. Note the plastic wheels, which contribute to a smoky fire. Also note that the step chain is attached to the step by four connection points, one on each side of the bar (shown above) and two wheels, which ride on a track. These four connection points make it impossible to remove individual steps during an emergency operation.
(14) The step chain new. Note the plastic wheels, which contribute to a smoky fire. Also note that the step chain is attached to the step by four connection points, one on each side of the bar (shown above) and two wheels, which ride on a track. These four connection points make it impossible to remove individual steps during an emergency operation.

Best Practices for Gaining Access

Access through the escalator stair. To quickly access the drip pan beneath the escalator for stream application or to assist with an access opening when a body part is trapped, your best option is the reciprocating saw. Make two cuts with the grain (rib) to take advantage of the weak part of the step. Then use a maul and strike the center of the two cuts to remove the cutout. This evolution takes less than one minute to complete.

Cutting across the grain (rib) is a more difficult and time-consuming cut and not necessary for quick access. Also effective is the power saw, but the size of the saw and the carbon monoxide it expels make it a less desirable option. Using a maul to strike the step is also effective, but this tactic does not save significant time.

Removing a body part trapped in the side of the escalator stair. For this scenario, again, the best option is to make one cut with the reciprocating saw with the grain (rib) to take advantage of the weak part of the step. Make the cut near the side of the trapped body part no more than 10 inches from the side of the step. At the approximate one-foot mark, you will find a reinforcing rib on the underside of the step that may make this cut difficult. After placing this cut as close as possible to the side of the step, use a screwdriver or rabbit tool to “chisel” out the step, then use an ax or a maul to carefully strike and remove the cut piece of stair. This should free the trapped body part. The power saw is not effective here because of the close proximity of the patient’s body part to the cut and the difficulty in getting the saw close enough to make the cut.

Removing a body part trapped at the bottom escalator floor plate landing. A patient’s foot trapped at the bottom of an escalator is probably the most likely escalator emergency you will encounter. The best practice here is to begin by removing the yellow safety comb, which is very brittle and easy to break. After removal, insert a halligan or rabbit tool to provide the small opening required to remove the trapped body part.

(1<b>5) </b>The step chain after the fire. Note the plastic wheels, which contribute to a smoky fire. Also note that the step chain is attached to the step by four connection points, one on each side of the bar (shown above) and two wheels, which ride on a track. These four connection points make it impossible to remove individual steps during an emergency operation.
(15) The step chain after the fire. Note the plastic wheels, which contribute to a smoky fire. Also note that the step chain is attached to the step by four connection points, one on each side of the bar (shown above) and two wheels, which ride on a track. These four connection points make it impossible to remove individual steps during an emergency operation.

Lessons Learned

  • Expect escalator emergency scenes to be chaotic, with screaming family members and many onlookers. Most escalators are in public occupancies that can draw a large and vocal crowd quickly. The Macy’s incident was no different, with crying family members and a large crowd around the trapped victim.
  • Expect fires in escalators to generate a great deal of black smoke, creating the potential for panic.
  • Always have a plan B. During the escalator emergency at Macy’s, Rescue 4 stood by with its portable electric extrication tool, continually evaluating the situation. Had the halligan or rabbit tool failed to gain the desired clearance, the electric extrication tool would have been the next option.
  • Always assign firefighters to remove power at the main line disconnect or from the breaker box supplying power to the escalator.
  • Never assume that the power to the escalator has been removed. Stairs that are not moving on arrival most often indicate that the emergency button was pressed or the designed safety mechanisms of the escalator were tripped, thereby stopping the stairs when they detect resistance. During an escalator incident where a body part is trapped, it is common for the safety to trip, as was the case during the Macy’s escalator incident.
  • Communications can be difficult in large-area structures and are typical of occupancies that have escalators. Prepare proactively to set up for a possible radio relay.
  • Do not overlook the value of psychological first aid to the patient and the emotional family members.
  • Consider the need for search ropes when searching the large-area floors that are typical of these occupancies.

Author’s note: Thanks to Schindler Escalator and Elevator Company employees who provided subject matter expertise in the operation, construction, and general features found in escalators.

FRANK LEEB is a 24-year veteran and a battalion chief for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) assigned to Battalion 46. His prior FDNY assignments include Engine 323 and Squad 270 as a firefighter, Engine 324 as a lieutenant, and Engine 76 as a captain. Leeb is also a 32-year member of the East Farmingdale (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a master’s degree in homeland security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a degree in fire service administration. Leeb has also completed the FDNY’s Fire Officer Advanced Leadership program and the FDNY/USMA at West Point Combating Terrorism program.

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