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Fire in a high-rise building: Is it safe to ride the elevator?

Monday, February 28th, 2011
People running toward an exit

Is it safe to use an elevator to exit in emergencies?

The 9/11 disasters prompted facility managers and emergency management professionals to discuss the use of elevators for egress in cases of fire-related emergencies. Among other things, the terrorist attacks shed light on the fact that, for optimum safety, certain emergencies require evacuation of all floors simultaneously instead of individually.

While not yet mainstream, research and discussion is beginning to challenge long-held beliefs. Some high-rise buildings, such as the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, utilize evacuation elevators due to the height of the building, which makes emergency stairway exits implausible.

So is change coming? Who will ultimately decide? Elevator use in buildings is largely managed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, who review and suggest changes for elevator codes that dictate standards for buildings throughout the country.

Challenges to implementation of evacuation elevators:

  • Changing ingrained procedures will be a challenge. Building occupants have long been told to “take the stairs during a fire.” Adapting tenants to the safety and expediency of elevator evacuation might be difficult. Intensive in-person training will need to be executed and assurances given about the newfound benefits of using elevators for speedier emergency exits.
  • Handling water from sprinklers is an engineering hurdle. If occupants need to escape quickly during a fire, it’s very likely the sprinklers will be on during evacuation. So operations and communications equipment in evacuation elevators need to be protected from potential water damage.
  • Smoke inhalation is the biggest health danger during a fire. So Smoke Control Systems should be installed, maintained and regularly inspected in elevator areas.
  • Other potential hazards, such as earthquakes causing fires, mean evacuation elevators need to be structurally reinforced.

If tenants plan to use evacuation elevators but firefighters on the ground recall all elevators to the lobby, precious time could be wasted. Working with fire department staff prevents this type of mis-communication. One way the RJWestmore Training System improves emergency communication between local fire departments and our clients is via the building-specific, automatic notifications and updates we send to fire departments with real-time information relative to Special Assistance, Floor Wardens and Fire Safety Directors. Thanks to this service, emergency personnel are well-equipped to provide assistance and direction when they arrive on scene.

Installation of dedicated emergency egress elevators is not usually valuable unless the elevators themselves are protected from fire. New codes are emerging which have been designed to protect evacuation elevators with fireproof padding and other structural safeguards. Dedicated emergency power supplies are also needed to ensure elevator occupants are not left stranded between floors during emergencies.

Widespread requirements for evacuation elevators might be on the horizon. So it’s important to stay ahead of the learning curve. Used correctly, they offer the ultimate promise of a higher degree of safety for those who work and live in high-rise structures. As always, be sure you review the latest national and local codes as they relate to fire-related procedures. It’s important to have an integrated approach to fire safety which includes sprinklers, alarms and safe evacuation routes.

When a disaster strikes, prior planning and clear decisive action can help save lives.  For the latest emergency management training for facility/building managers, contact RJ Westmore, Inc. Our new Version 2.0 e-based training system offers the best emergency training system with automated and integrated features. Visit RJWestmore.com for more information and remember to BE SAFE.