USING THE ELEVATOR AT STRUCTURE FIRES
I am pleased to act as “moderator” for the Roundtable articles. This monthly discussion, I believe, will provide you with a wide-ranging view of topics of concern to the fire service. Members of our panel will share their experience and insights concerning the specified topic. We would very much like to hear from you. If you have a topic you would like to see answered “around the table,” please submit it. Information is given in the box at the end of this article.
–John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of operations, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and member of the FDIC Educational Committee.
Dozens of firefighters have been injured or killed when using elevators at fires. Still knowing this, is the delay in getting to the fire worth the risk to personnel? When the Toledo Department of Fire and Rescue Operations revised its high-rise manual in 1990, I talked to an elevator manufacturer (Shindler Haughton). After our discussions on how to use the elevator in an emergency and the fire department`s concerns, I asked the engineer one final question: “Knowing what you know–if you were a firefighter, would you initially use an elevator at a fire?” His answer was quick and certain. “NO! They are machines, and machinery fails.”
Question: What is your department`s procedure on using the elevator at structure fires?
Deputy Chief Larry Anderson, Dallas (TX)
Fire Department, Head of Training Division
Response: In Dallas, we are painfully aware of the hazards associated with using elevators for initial fire attack. We have not experienced an inordinate number of elevator failures, but we do not trust them implicitly. Our procedure states that if the fire is below the eighth floor, initial companies are not to use the elevators. We do, however, take control of at least one elevator for the use of subsequent companies.
If the fire is on the eighth floor or higher, the officer on the first-arriving company secures the elevator key from the lock box and takes control of the elevator. One firefighter with a portable radio is assigned to operate the elevator. The elevator is stopped at least five floors below the fire floor several times to ensure proper operation. The elevator is then stopped two floors below the fire floor, and crews must proceed from there by stairwell.
Each firefighter in our department carries a portable radio and can communicate with anyone else on the fireground should a problem arise. The elevator is a valuable tool when used correctly and with caution; but, as with any other tool, there are times when it should not be used. The decision to use the elevator always rests with the incident commander. n
Joseph A. Floyd, Sr., assistant chief (division head), Columbia (SC) Fire Department
Response: The Columbia Fire Department (CFD) does use elevators at structure fires, but only if we can gain full control of them. The City of Columbia does not have any high-rise buildings taller than 25 stories. If firefighters cannot gain control of elevators, it is the fire department`s procedure to use the stairs.
Prefire surveys play an important role in determining if firefighters will use elevators in a structure fire. These surveys help the CFD determine if firefighters can gain full operational control of each elevator and if they are safe to operate during a fire.
The information gained through prefire surveys is valuable for determining what type of elevator is in use and other relevant information, such as the following: (1) the age of the elevator; (2) weight capacity; (3) whether there are multiple hoistways and whether the elevators serve the entire building or just certain floors; and (4) whether the elevator has a fire service key switch and, if so, its location.
Columbia uses a lock box system. When the first-arriving company comes on the scene, one of its first assignments is to locate the lock box and obtain the keys to the building and the elevators. If there are no keys to the elevator, then the stairs are used. A firefighter is stationed in the lobby so that the fire department has total control of the lobby and its elevators. If the elevators are judged safe for use, then firefighters will proceed two to three floors below the fire floor and use the stairways the rest of the distance.
CFD personnel have been taught to use the STOP switch to halt the car before the doors open automatically; the inside doors can then be forced open slightly so the outside doors can be checked for excessive heat. Control of all elevators is taken as soon as personnel are available. Elevators are placed on manual control, with a firefighter retaining control.
Some basic rules the CFD Training Bureau has taught CFD firefighters are the following:
1. Never take elevators to the fire floor.
2. Never pass the fire floor unless special precautions (outlined in our SOPs) are observed.
3. Never return in an “up” elevator, except on Emergency Service.
4. Never use elevators in multiple hoistways during major fires unless all cars are under fire department control (Phase I).
5. Always activate the emergency stop switch before escaping a stalled elevator.
6. Always carry forcible entry tools when using elevators.
7. Never overcrowd elevators.
8. If the fire is on the sixth floor or below, use the stairs. n
Fire Chief/Administrator Thomas K. Freeman, Lisle-Woodridge Fire District, Lisle, Illinois
Response: Elevators are used at the discretion of first-arriving suppression companies in the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District. Initial fire companies determine elevator use based on size-up, overall building height (10 stories or more/10 stories or less), and fire floor location. First-due engine and ladder companies combine to form the Fire Investigation Team for initial attack, with the second engine providing backup lines.
In buildings 10 stories or fewer, the general procedure is that if initial fire companies opt for the stairs based on their size-up, then elevators are controlled by the second-arriving companies or Lobby Control. It is the responsibility of Lobby Control, once designated by the incident commander, to establish which additional elevators can be used and to ensure that all elevators are placed in fire department service control to prevent their use by occupants.
If there are more than 10 stories, elevators are regularly used with the direction and understanding that in all cases, when in doubt, do not take a chance, use the stairway.
Elevator use is permitted only when the service is under key-operated fire department control. Fire companies are to use discretion in the number of personnel riding in each car, so that the required equipment can be carried and forcible entry/exit can be performed should the need arise. Companies are to take elevators to two floors below the reported/determined fire floor, leaving a firefighter in the car with tools and a radio.
One firefighter must be left in the elevator car at all times when the elevator is put in fire department service mode. At no time are elevators to be used by fire suppression companies unless they are in fire department service mode. If the elevators cannot be put into fire department service mode, they will not be used. Cars will be operated and occupied only by fire department personnel. n
Chief Ronald Hiraki, chief of training, Seattle (WA) Fire Department
Response: The Seattle Fire Department does not have a specific practice or rule restricting the use of elevators during a structure fire. The department`s high-rise procedures support the use of elevators by the first-arriving companies. Except in unusual circumstances, the first-arriving engine company is expected to initiate Lobby Control. This includes capturing the elevator(s) and assigning a firefighter as an elevator operator.
The high-rise procedures contain specific directives to be followed when operating elevators. The elevator operator must ensure that the elevator is in the “emergency service” mode and must check the elevator for proper emergency operation. Other procedures call for checking the elevator shaft for smoke levels and keeping water out of the hoistway. Additionally, firefighters in elevators must have all personal protective equipment (including SCBA), basic tools, radio, and firefighter building phone. They are reminded not to load elevators to full capacity with firefighters or equipment.
The Seattle Fire Code requires that specific types of buildings have elevators capable of “emergency service” and that the elevators be linked to the building`s fire alarm system. Building owners are required to have these and other life-safety systems tested by a technician certified to ensure the proper operation of these systems. The Seattle Fire Department`s Fire Prevention Division has a dedicated Confidence Testing Unit to administer and support this inspection procedure. n
Chief Rick Lasky, Coeur d`Alene (ID)
Response: The Coeur d`Alene Fire Department currently has an SOP regarding elevator use at structure fires. As is the case with all that we do on the fireground, safety is paramount to our personnel, and the choice to use an elevator in a fire situation will depend on whether or not we can ensure that it can be done safely.
Understanding that elevators are used under normal conditions to move people throughout a building, under fire conditions we know that they are subject to serious malfunction from the effects of heat, smoke, and water on drive machinery or control equipment.
The following, taken from our department`s high-rise firefighting SOP, is intended for all personnel operating at these types of incidents and does not apply solely to the fire investigation crew. This information reflects only the section regarding elevator use.
Our initial action is to take control of the elevator(s), restricting use by civilians and firefighting personnel until the safety of the system can be determined. All elevators should be returned to the ground floor, placed on manual control, and run by firefighter operators. Whenever an emergency is still in progress, even after it has been determined that the elevators are safe for firefighter use, they should never be used to go directly to the fire floor. Any elevator capable of stopping at the involved floor should not be used to go any higher than two floors below the fire.
All personnel are to be wearing full protective clothing, including SCBA, and have with them the appropriate tools/ equipment for their assigned task.
If the decision is to use the elevator, while in use, stop midway between the lobby and the desired upper floor location. This will provide a check of the elevator control system and, with the elevator doors open, the hoistway can be checked for smoke conditions.
If an elevator is used and it fails to stop at the midway point or at two floors below the fire floor, the emergency stop button should be used immediately. If there is the slightest doubt that the elevators are not safe, use the stairways, and advise command concerning the condition of the elevators.
If the fire appears to be extensive or if the elevators and shafts may be involved, elevators should not be used until they have been inspected and determined safe. Until then, a firefighter should be stationed in the lobby to prevent their use. Finally, elevators used for evacuation of building occupants should be operated by firefighters so that the maximum number of individuals can be removed to the ground in the minimum period of time and the elevator constantly remains under the control of firefighting personnel. n
Deputy Chief Gary P. Morris, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: Access to the fire floors of a high-rise building will always present a challenge to firefighters. The general view that elevators pose a risk to firefighters if improperly used is realistic based on past experience.
However, totally disregarding elevators in favor of only the stairway use creates considerable delays in getting water on the fire. Some studies indicate a climbing time average of two minutes per floor. Further compromising fire attack is the fact that most crews will be physically exhausted when they reach the fire floor. The use of elevators should remain an option for the incident commander.
The Phoenix Fire Department SOPs allow use of elevators based on the following considerations:
Elevator shafts must be assessed for smoke or other conditions that would create a risk before they may be used.
Only ANSI-II elevators with fireman`s service features may be used.
A crew trained in elevator use and self-rescue will take control of the elevator.
A radio(s), forcible entry tools, a step ladder, and a spare SCBA bottle will remain in the elevator with the operator for self-survival purposes.
Elevators that have shafts that do not go to the fire floor are always preferred.
First-up crews must stop at every fifth floor to check the shaft for smoke or other risks.
Crews must always stop two floors below the fire floor to exit. Access to the fire floor will then be by stairways.
Blind shafts that pass through floors without landing/exit points should not be used.
Elevator shafts and the general operation of the elevator must be constantly monitored for changing conditions. Crews will discontinue use if conditions deteriorate.
Crews must be fully equipped with protective clothing and SCBA. The first crew to the projected departure floors (i.gif>., two floors below the fire floor) should have their SCBAs turned on and face pieces on prior to arriving on the floor.
Where safe to use, elevators provide a rapid means of moving firefighters and equipment to upper floors. Crews are in a ready state for full physical fire attack. Phoenix has not experienced an elevator failure or other safety risk to firefighters while using elevators during high-rise operations. n
Deputy Chief Jim Murtagh, Fire Department
of New York
Response: Fires on the upper floors of high-rise buildings continually challenge our firefighters` wits and talents. Getting personnel and equipment into position rapidly enough to make an effective attack is very critical to the ultimate outcome of the incident. Often, the only practical way to accomplish this is to use elevators. In New York City, firefighters use the elevators to get their firefighting teams and equipment into position as quickly as possible. Some of the most fundamental concepts for the safe use of elevators include the following:
If the fire is on the seventh floor or below, avoid using the elevator. Walk up.
In a building with multiple banks of elevators, do not use an elevator that services the fire floor if another bank of elevators terminates within five floors of the reported fire floor.
The service elevator shall not be used until the incident commander has declared it safe to do so.
When using an elevator that could go to the fire floor, choose a car with “fireman`s service” when available. If “fireman`s service” is not available, use a car in manual mode.
Before entering the elevator, all firefighters must have their SCBA donned and in ready position. Forcible entry tools and at least one radio must be taken into the car. The number of firefighters per car is limited to six.
After checking for smoke in the shaft with a handlight, close the car door and select stops at five-floor intervals starting with your final destination, which should be no closer than two floors below the reported fire floor.
When the car stops at the test floors, open the doors, shine a light up the shaft to check for smoke, and check the floor you are here sign to determine the location of the nearest stairway. Do not straddle the car-door opening and hall floor while looking up the shaft or when holding the car doors open for other firefighters. Stand in the car or on the hall floor.
If at any time a car operates erratically, activate the emergency stop, get everyone off the elevator, and notify the incident commander of your actions and location. Before you leave this location, put the car out of service (by using the car controls or blocking the car door open), and then continue to your destination by walking up the stairs.
Never use an elevator that services all floors to go above the fire. Use an elevator in a blind shaft that safely passes the fire floor or the stairs.
The safe use of elevators during fires requires training and practice. Each firefighter has to be conscious of elevator hazards and must ensure that the elevator car he is in is operated in accordance with the department`s operational practices. n
Chief Frank Schape St. Louis (MO)
Response: The use of elevators by St. Louis firefighters at structural fires varies with the building and situation. Our high-rise standard operating procedure calls for the second-arriving battalion chief to assume the position of Lobby Control Officer. One of his assignments is to get control of all elevators, either Phase 1 Recall or Phase 2 Firefighter Service.
During fire conditions, elevators may be used to support fire department operations once Phase 1 has been accomplished and Phase 2 has been established. First-arriving officers must quickly determine if they can gain control of the elevators and maintain that control. Our department does not use elevators to reach fires five floors or below.
Firefighters using elevators must first check in with the Lobby Control Officer for accountability purposes and must be carrying portable radios and forcible entry tools. Firefighters using elevators must be wearing their SCBAs. No more than six firefighters are allowed to use the same elevator car. Elevators are stopped every five floors to ensure proper operation. Firefighters are instructed to stop the elevator at least two floors below the fire floor. For safety, we do not use a bank of elevators that goes to the fire floor if another bank of elevators can reach within five floors of the fire floor.
Before going on the elevator, firefighters are instructed to note the location of stairways relative to the elevator. If the elevator does not stop, the emergency stop button is activated. The elevator is then exited as safely as possible, and the situation is reported to the Lobby Control Officer. In buildings with a known history of elevator problems–housing projects, for example–our firefighters do not use the elevators. n