Elevator Rescues

Photo by Chris McKenna

By Thomas N. Warren

Almost every fire department in America has elevators in their district, and they all have a potential for malfunctioning at one time or another. In small communities, elevator rescues may be a rare event, but in metropolitan areas, elevator rescues can be a common occurrence. Regardless of the frequency of elevator rescue calls, all firefighters must be familiar not just with the mechanical workings of elevators but also how to operate at elevator rescues safely. When an elevator car stalls, it will be the fire department that receives the call to remove its occupants.

There are two basic types of elevators that you will encounter: electric traction and hydraulic. The electric traction uses steel cables, counter weights, and pulleys to raise and lower the elevator car. The hydraulic uses hydraulic fluid and pistons to raise and lower elevator cars. The hydraulic type is usually limited to buildings of six stories or less.

The first step is to become familiar with the features of elevator construction and their operational features. Following are some common terms used when operating at elevator rescues.



Alarm switch. Also known as the “Emergency Call” button, this is an electrical switch inside an elevator car on the control panel that will activate an alarm bell. Some elevators will have just a push button, while others have a pull-out activation switch.

Blind elevator. Also called “express elevators,” this elevator type does not stop at every floor in a building; it may only stop every 10 floors or more.

Car door. This is the door that is attached to the elevator car. These doors are visible from inside the elevator car and either slide open in one direction or split in half and slide open to both ends of the car.

Drop keys. This is a long cylindrical key that is hinged toward one end of the key with a flat drop piece of metal. It has a “T”-style handle on the opposite end of the key and is used to open the hoistway doors. The drop key is inserted into a small hole in the upper area of the hoistway door and is slid into the hole. It is rotated until you feel it hit the rod or closure assembly. It is then rotated to release the hoistway door from the closed position. There are numerous styles of elevator rescue keys dependent on those found in your area. Your department should equip you with the proper tools.

Elevator car control panel. The panel located inside the elevator car. This panel contains the emergency stop bottom, the alarm switch, the “Open Door” and “Close Door” buttons, the floor selection buttons, the firefighters service switch or key, the maintenance service switch, and the floor display. Communication equipment is often located on this panel.

Elevator control panel. This control panel located in the lobby or first floor indicates the location of the elevator car; the floor selection buttons; the firefighters’ service switch; the maintenance service switch; and, possibly, a telephone.

Elevator keys. These keys are used to control the elevator’s movements. Firefighters’ service keys are the most common and which can be different from one jurisdiction to another. Many times, these keys are controlled by local ordinances.

Elevator machine room. This room is usually located above the hoistway where the motors that raise and lower the elevator cars are located. Be aware that these motors may also be below or adjacent to the bottom of the hoistway shaft. The electrical power control switches are also located here. For hydraulic elevators, the machine room is located in an area below the hoistway or in a room adjacent to the elevator on the first floor.

Emergency stop button. This is electric button, when activated, will stop the elevator car in the hoistway. An alarm bell may ring when it is activated.

Express elevator. This elevator that travels directly from the ground floor to a sky lobby or bypass numerous floors in high-rise building.

Firefighter service. This is a key switch located on the elevator and elevator car control panels that allow firefighters to take control of the movement of the elevator car.

Hoistway. This is the shaft inside a building where the elevator car moves up and down.

Hoistway doors. These doors are attached to the hoistway shaft. They are visible from the elevator lobby, which may either be a sliding design or hinge-type door that usually opens outward from the car.

Hydraulic elevators. This is an elevator that uses hydraulic fluid, a hydraulic pump, and a lifting piston to raise and lower an elevator car. Hydraulic elevators are limited to buildings six stories high or less.

Main electrical power switch. This is the main control switch that controls the power to the elevator motor, which controls the elevator car’s movement in the hoistway. All power switches should have “on/off” designations and are clearly marked. The switches should also indicate which elevator it controls. This switch does not control the lighting and ventilation in the elevator car.

Sky lobby elevator. This elevator is used in high-rise buildings where elevators start at the ground level and end their service at a higher floor level (but not at the top floor). At that higher floor, passengers must exit one elevator and move to another elevator that services only the higher floors of the building. The elevator lobby where this move is made is known as the “sky lobby.”

When people find themselves in a stalled elevator, they will usually try operating it by activating every button on the elevator control panel, hoping they can get the elevator moving again. When they find this effort to be unsuccessful, they will contact the local 911 office with their cellphones or they may activate the Emergency Alarm switch; this will usually lead other building occupants to call 911. The 911 office will then notify the local fire department.

Where you work or your department’s response plan to elevator emergencies may differ from the following plan, which is a response pattern that my department follows for an elevator rescue.

An elevator rescue operation requires firefighters to operate at different levels of a building remote from one another. A response of one engine, one ladder, a chief officer, and an emergency medical services unit is necessary for safe and coordinate operations. Each fire company will have a responsibility all its own that is interdependent with the operations of other fire companies. Communication between all companies is key for a successful operation.

The responding engine company should arrive and enter the building with all the necessary equipment they it will need to successfully remove occupants from the elevator car. The firefighters should be in full personal protective equipment (PPE) [without self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)], and have elevator keys, a drop key, rescue rope, hand lights, wood chocks, a portable radio, and a standard tool kit.

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The responding ladder company should also arrive and enter the building with all the necessary equipment they may need. Depending on the situation, the firefighters should be in full PPE (without SCBA) and have elevator keys, a drop key, building keys, a six- to eight-foot pike pole or hook, elevator poles, a halligan tool, hydraulic forcible entry tool, hand lights, portable radio, and wood chocks. If you need a 10-foot folding ladder or a 14-foot roof or straight ladder is needed, the driver can bring that into the building when he is called . (Note: Many departments run short staffed, and we can’t bring everything in initially. You must size up the situation; we are not pack mules, and carrying all the equipment in for a simple drop key removal—where the car is level with the floor—is not good practice for companies running thousands of calls a year.)


Chief Officer’s Role

The responding chief officer should arrive ready to take command and coordinate the actions of the engine and ladder company. The chief should be in full PPE (without SCBA), and have a portable radio. A clipboard is helpful for documentation, coordination, and accountability. The chief officer should also establish command at the location of the stalled elevator car.


EMS Unit

The EMS unit should stand by at the location of the stalled elevator car ready to provide medical care for any injured or panicked elevator occupant OR firefighter (if something goes wrong). In most cases, it is unlikely that the occupants of the elevator will be injured, but the experience could bring on other medical emergencies like panic attacks, cardiac issues, fainting, breathing difficulties, and overheating, to name a few. The companies operating at the location can quickly get a picture of the conditions inside the stalled elevator car by talking with the occupants. Reassuring the occupants is important.


Engine Company

The engine company is responsible for locating the stalled elevator car, assessing the conditions of the occupants, informing the occupants of the rescue operations, informing all companies operating at the location of the stalled elevator car, and directing occupants to perform a system check of the stalled elevator car. To determine the location of the stalled car, the engine company can check the elevator control panel indicator located in the main lobby; use the elevator car intercom/phone system; listen for the sound of an emergency bell ringing in the building; or, most reliably, use the information from the building maintenance staff.

The engine company officer should initially report the location of the stalled elevator car to all companies, then establish a dialogue with one person in the stalled elevator car. Once a dialogue is established, the engine company officer can work with that person to evaluate the condition of the occupants, reassure the occupants that the fire department is there ready to evacuate them quickly, and perform a system check as directed. This system check may reboot the elevator car.

The engine company officer should begin by asking if the Emergency Stop button was activated. If this is not the source of the problem, the next option is to try to active the Door Open button. If this is unsuccessful, the next step is to instruct the occupants to push the Floor Select button to the next highest floor and the Door Open button simultaneously. If this system check is unsuccessful, the next option is to activate the Fireman Service at the elevator lobby for the stalled elevator car. Activating this key switch may bring the stalled elevator car to the ground floor (along with all the other elevator cars) and open the elevator car doors. When this series of steps is unsuccessful, the chief will direct the ladder company to gain access to the machine room and shut off the electrical power to the stalled elevator car.


Ladder Company

The ladder company will serve two main roles at elevator emergencies. The first is to shut off the electrical power to the stalled elevator car, and the second is to gain access to the stalled elevator car.

The ladder company will respond first to the stalled elevator car to determine how the stalled elevator is aligned in relation to other elevators in the elevator lobby. The next step is to divide its crew into two groups: The first group will be charged with shutting down the power to the elevator car, and the second group will be charged with gaining access to the stalled elevator car.

The group that is charged with shutting down the electrical power will make its way to the elevator machine room, which, in most cases, will be above the elevator hoistway and where there will be an electrical power shutoff for each elevator car. The electrical power shutoff switches will be aligned in the same way as the elevator cars are aligned. However, this is not always the case, and you may have to locate the power’s whereabouts. Terminating the power to the elevator will allow firefighters to safely enter the hoistway and elevator car and open doors while still providing lighting and ventilation to the elevator car for the trapped occupants. For hydraulic elevators, the machine room will be located below the hoistway or in an adjacent room at the lowest floor served by the elevator. The hydraulic elevator will also have an electrical shutoff switch for each car and, like the electric traction elevator, the switches will be aligned in the same way as the elevator cars.

Terminating the power to the stalled elevator car will still allow other elevators to function normally. The ladder company will stand by the electrical power switch and await the order to shut off the power. When the chief orders the power shut off, the ladder company will shut off the electrical power and report to the chief that the power is terminated. The company must remain at the power switch until relieved by the chief and should not allow anyone to tamper with the electrical power switch during fire department operations. When relieved by the chief, the ladder company should leave the electrical power switch in the “off” position until an elevator service contractor services the elevator. Use the lockout/tagout devices if if are able to do so.

The group that is charged with opening the elevator doors and removing the occupants will work with the engine company on the floor of the stalled elevator. The ladder company will use drop keys to open an elevator hoistway door. From there, open the elevator car doors attached to the stalled elevator car. The ladder company can use a pike pole, an elevator stick, or any variety of tools that can be used to trip the rollers that control the opening and closing of the hoistway and elevator car doors when working from or above/below the stalled elevator car or next to an adjoining car. Excessive force is not usually required to open these doors and, in most cases, very little effort is needed to move these doors to the side. Heavy forcible entry tools will only be needed in rare cases such as when there is a broken assembly rod or closing device.

Once the hoistway doors and elevator car doors are open, the occupants will be visible, and the firefighters should chock the doors in the open position using wooden wedges. Once the doors are chocked open and (if) the elevator car is at floor level, the occupants can self-evacuate. If the elevator car floor and the lobby floor are not on an even plane, the ladder company must use their ground ladders to remove the occupants. The safest method to remove occupants when the elevator is between floors (not on an even plane) is to remove them by climbing up a ladder and out of the elevator car. Your first action will be to lower a ladder into the elevator car from the elevator lobby, then climb down into the car and assist the occupants on to the ladder and guide them up the ladder to the floor above. If it is necessary to enter the stalled elevator car from the elevator hatch, a folding/scissor/ suitcase ladder may be the ladder of choice to get through the small escape hatch. Firefighters in the elevator lobby can stabilize the ladder and assist the occupants as they climb up the ladder. Securing a rope between a railing inside the elevator car and a secure object in the elevator lobby can provide assurance to occupants climbing the ladder. The EMS unit can now assist any occupant that requires medical attention.

Once all the occupants are removed from the elevator, close all hoistway and elevator doors and terminate the power. If exterior hoistway door is broken, secure it by using chocks to wedge it closed, then ask maintenance if they have a piece of plywood to put over the doorway and ensure security is present if none of these actions work. Notify an elevator service contractor to respond and the building maintenance personnel instructed not to restore the electrical power. At this point, all fire department operations have concluded, and the firefighters can return to their companies.

This guide to elevator rescues is for the most common types of elevators encountered in most buildings. Expand this operational plan for other types of elevators such as freight elevators, blind elevator shafts and sky lobby elevators, for example. Tactics will become more complex for elevator rescues where only roof or side access is available for firefighter access to the stalled elevator car. Regular visits to buildings equipped with elevators will allow firefighters to become familiar with machine room locations and elevator configurations. Making these visits and developing a relationship with the building maintenance staff is time well spent. Company officers should consider these visits in their company drill/training program.



Providence Fire Department SOP #20—Emergency Responses to Elevator Incidents


Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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