By Michael A. Dragonetti and Derek B. Thomas
Several years ago in a major metropolitan city, the busy workday was churning along. People were going about their business trusting in the vertical transportation to which they had grown so accustomed. In this one complex of city-owned buildings, two elevator mechanics were on duty maintaining more than 40 units in three buildings. They would rotate through the three buildings looking, listening, and tweaking where necessary. Elevator maintenance is a continuing battle against wear and tear with the goal of hopefully preventing a shutdown before it occurs and to quickly and efficiently address one when it inevitably occurs.
A group of people entered the lobby. Some were patiently waiting; some were not so patient. “Ding.” An elevator arrives at lobby level, the doors open, and the people filter in and press their floor destinations. Little do they know or appreciate just how much has occurred for this to happen. The controller is running through its process of solid state and relay logics to determine that it is now safe to run. Doors close; lock circuits make up; the main contactor energizes; and the brake lifts, allowing free movement. A significant amount of engineering has made this simple act a normal daily event.
Today is the day that some random electrical device within the drive circuitry has decided to call it quits. It has given its all for many years, but today is the day for a shutdown. A resistor fails, a fuse blows, a critical circuit in the “run sequence” opens up and the controller stops this elevator dead in its tracks. The contacts open for the drive circuit, the safety circuit subsequently removes all power and allows the brakes to clamp the drive sheave. A box full of people is now stuck in a shaft, and the people within it have no idea of what is happening outside.
It is silent in the box. Everyone’s stomach sinks; they momentarily hold their breath hoping something happens. Everyone looks around at each other pondering their fate: “Will we plummet to our demise?” “Does anyone know we are in here?” “I’m going to be late to my meeting!”
An occupant presses the “press for help” button. Through a crackly intercom, a building security officer responds, “Security, how can I help?”
Occupant: “Elevator 6 has stopped, and we are trapped.”
Security: “What floor?”
Occupant (shouting): “How do I know?”
Security: “OK, we’ll call our elevator guys.”
Customer service etiquette isn’t a top priority in this city building.
While making his rounds, one of the two elevator mechanics gets a call of an entrapment. He phones his partner, and they make their way to the building. Elevator mechanics will usually proceed straight to the machine room. They will look at the state of the controller, attempt to bring the elevator to the nearest floor, level it in, and open the doors so the occupants can exit normally. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t.
In this case, the cause of the shutdown was too involved to move the elevator cab, so the mechanics headed down to the floor to see if they could remove the occupants. When they keyed in and opened the shaftway door, they were met with an elevator that was between floors—too high to safely remove people from the floor they stood on and too low to exit from the floor above. At that point, they spoke with the occupants to assure them that they were safe and that the mechanics were working to get them out.
Together, the two mechanics returned to the machine room to “drift the car” in an attempt to bring the elevator to floor level. Only trained elevator mechanics should “drift” a traction elevator. Without the proper tools and experience, an elevator cab could uncontrollably rapidly ascend or descend.
The two men gathered the necessary tools and formulated a plan to drift the car about six feet. They had already locked out and tagged out (LOTO) the main source of power. One mechanic got into position to pick the brake mechanism while the other watched a positioning system to see when it was close to floor level.
A sudden intuition told one of the mechanics to look down through the cable shoot before they moved the car. He held up his partner and peered down the hole. It should be dark with very little light, but he saw the light of an open shaftway door and people exiting the cab! Someone was letting these people out!
They dropped everything and ran down the stairs to the sixth floor to find the building manager and the fire department removing the people from the elevator stalled between floors and a gaping hole beneath the elevator through which someone easily could have fallen. The people were sliding out of the elevator into the arms and onto the shoulders of firefighters.
The mechanics stood there shocked by the thought that they were seconds away from killing or injuring any number of these people if they had moved the elevator cab.
This true story was shared by a now close friend and coinstructor. He is a seasoned elevator mechanic and a longtime volunteer firefighter. This story brought us together in a twist of fate, and we now share one mission because of this near miss: to share our experiences in hope of keeping firefighters and passengers safe during a stalled elevator situation.
The Many Lessons to Be Learned
Anytime a near miss like this one happens, there are many safety lessons to be learned and preventive measures to employ to prevent it from happening in the future. The elevator mechanics, the fire department, and the building management made mistakes. Here are our takeaways from this near miss:
- Every fire department must have a standard operating procedure (SOP) in place when dealing with a stalled elevator. An integral part of that SOP is to send a firefighter to the machine room. The firefighters in this story never went to the machine room. Had they done so, they most likely would have crossed paths with the elevator mechanics who were in the process of moving the elevator.
- The fire department should isolate power sources to the elevator and use LOTO or leave a firefighter with a radio stationed at the power disconnect waiting for further orders.
- The fire department should have requested building management to have the elevator company’s mechanics respond and provide an estimated time of arrival before doing anything.
- The elevator mechanics should have maintained communications with the building management with regard to the status of their response, their location, and their plan of action.
- The elevator mechanics should have split up and established radio communication with each other before attempting to move the elevator. This simple move most likely would have allowed them to cross paths with the fire department and building personnel who were removing the passengers from the stalled elevator.
- A clear line of communication between the elevator mechanics and the occupants is critical.
- The building managers should have informed the firefighters that elevator mechanics were on site during the workday who were informed and possibly even working on the problem.
Initial Response Procedures
As always, before removing passengers, rescue personnel must first ascertain if a true emergency exists. An easy way to do this is to use the acronym Fire-Injury-Illness-Panic (FIIP). Every department’s SOP should follow the following 11 Initial Response Procedures (IRPs).
Before you begin, attempt to contact an elevator mechanic and the building management.
- Obtain the building’s lock box key, if one is available. The box may contain useful elevator keys.
- Send two firefighters to the motor room, equipped with keys for the locked motor room, a set of irons, radios, a LOTO kit, and an appropriate fire extinguisher.
- If multiple elevators are present, verify which elevator is stalled. It is very important not to open the wrong hoistway door. Doing so will stop the operating elevator in mid-travel, possibly causing additional problems.
- Determine the elevator’s location in the hoistway.
- Once you have located the elevator, make immediate verbal contact with the passengers and assure them of their safety. Ask if anyone is ill or injured. This information will help you determine if you have a FIIP situation.
- If an emergency stop switch is present inside the car, have a passenger ensure it’s not in the “Stop” position.
- Have a passenger push a couple of floor buttons or the “Door Open” button.
- Have a passenger push closed the car doors if they are not fully closed.
- Activate the Phase I switch (Fireman’s Service) in the lobby. This may bring the elevator down to the lobby. Notify the occupants first!
- Make sure that all hoistway doors are fully closed (front, rear, and side).
- Cycle the main line disconnect (power switch) to the stalled elevator (turn off, wait 30 to 45 seconds, and turn back on). Attempt this only once. If the elevator does not respond to this action, it is beyond your capabilities to get the elevator moving again.
If these IRPs do not prove successful, secure the power to the stalled elevator with LOTO and devise a plan for safely removing the passengers.
When dealing with a stalled elevator, it is paramount that you are aware of the many potential dangers present during the removal process. Using subject matter experts, like an elevator mechanic, will keep all involved safe. Develop a working relationship with elevator personnel and learn their language. This will help bridge the disconnect that may exist between the elevator industry and the fire service.
Michael A. Dragonetti is a 24-year veteran firefighter and the deputy chief’s aide in Group 2 with the Stamford (CT) Fire Department. Previously, he was assigned to Rescue Company 1 for 17 years. He is a New York and Connecticut state-certified fire service instructor and has presented courses in elevator operations at the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Technical Rescue School (2002-2005). He has been an instructor at FDIC International since 2003 and is a contributing author to Fire Engineering. He has helped to develop a series of Training Minutes videos. Prior to developing and teaching “Handling Elevator Emergencies” in 1999, he had extensive experience in the New York City metropolitan area constructing, modernizing, maintaining, and repairing elevators and escalators with one of the world’s largest elevator companies. He is the founder and president of Dragon Rescue Management, a technical rescue training company specializing in handling elevator emergencies.
Derek B. Thomas is a third-generation volunteer firefighter in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He has served 21 years with the Norriton Fire Engine Company and Trappe Fire/EMS. He has held various positions within the organizations and is a captain at Trappe Fire/EMS. In addition, he has been employed in the construction trades for 21 years as an electrician and for the past 12 years in the elevator industry as a mechanic with the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 5. He maintains the daily elevator operations in Pennsylvania’s second tallest building.