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What Floor, Please?

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Hello brothers and sisters! In my previous articles, I’ve provided you with a significant amount of information and advice for specific engine company fire attack operations in high-rise structures. In this article, I would like to take a slight detour to discuss something that is a part of almost any high-rise response: elevator procedures.

During my last work shift, I responded on 21 emergency responses, six of which occurred after midnight. This is a fairly typical work-shift for the Denver Fire Department (DFD) District #2 (downtown) on a Friday. My incidents included a working fire, parties trapped in elevators and several automobile accidents, along with numerous other calls, from malicious false alarms to good-intent smoke scares.

During this shift, and all others, one of our primary responsibilities is getting there—that is, getting to the incidents as safely as possible, without being involved in an accident. This is a continuously difficult and dangerous objective to achieve. We can only achieve it by following some very basic procedures and safety considerations, from driving at a reasonable speed, to always maintaining the ability to stop when we enter a controlled intersection against a red light or stop sign.

For high-rise operations, arriving on the address side at the base of the building is just the beginning. We must now continue with good procedures and habits to ensure a safe arrival to the fire floor and point of operation. That’s where safe elevator operations come into use. Let me share with you some very simple, yet extremely effective, procedures and safety considerations that will help you “arrive alive.”

The following are recommended operational procedures for fire department use of elevators in high-rise buildings. The intent of these recommended procedures is to maximize firefighter safety and increase the probability for a safe and successful conclusion to incidents that require the use of elevators as a logistical tool.

When Not to Use Elevators

The first consideration is whether you should use the elevator at all. Several scenarios should lead you to avoid use of the elevators.

For low-rise buildings, it is recommended to use the stairs only. This is faster and safer, and eliminates the need for an elevator operator. Keep in mind, we should still take control of the elevators (Phase I), but using them to access the upper floors from the outset is not recommended.  Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

For low-rise buildings, it is recommended to use the stairs only. This is faster and safer, and eliminates the need for an elevator operator. Keep in mind, we should still take control of the elevators (Phase I), but using them to access the upper floors from the outset is not recommended. Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

Low-rise buildings
Elevators should not be used in low-rise buildings—those less than 75 feet tall, or approximately seven stories or less—during fireground operations. The time needed to retrieve elevator keys, recall an elevator, and periodically stop the elevator to test that elevator’s performance on the way up will take longer than simply walking up to a proposed staging location, generally two floors below the reported fire floor.

Furthermore, an added benefit of taking the stairs is that the initial fire attack group doesn’t lose one of their members, who would have to be assigned to the position of elevator operator. This is particularly important for those fire departments with limited staffing—which includes most fire departments.

Heavy fire upon arrival
If there is an obvious working fire upon arrival, with heavy fire venting from an upper floor, use the stairs. This is especially important if it’s possible that the fire has control over a large portion of the floor area and may have already compromised electrical power or other building systems, including the elevators.

For buildings that have multiple elevator banks, this presents an excellent, and safe operational option. That is, utilizing an elevator bank, such as a low-rise bank, to travel safely to an area below the mid- rise portion of the building, for a fire located in this area.  Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

For buildings that have multiple elevator banks, this presents an excellent, and safe operational option. That is, utilizing an elevator bank, such as a low-rise bank, to travel safely to an area below the mid- rise portion of the building, for a fire located in this area. Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

Smoke or fire in elevator machine room
If the fire alarm panel or other information indicates that the source of the smoke or fire may be inside an elevator machine room, do not use that bank of elevators. If that is the only bank of elevators in the building, firefighters should use the stairs.

Multiple elevator banks
If the building has multiple elevator banks, such as low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise, make every effort to use an elevator within a bank that does not directly service the suspected fire floor or floor of alarm. Avoid using any elevator that provides direct service to a suspected fire floor or floor of alarm.

No fire service recall and control (Phases I and II)
Check to see if the elevator or elevators in question are properly equipped with an approved fire service recall and control system. In other words, can firefighters control the elevator operations in a Phase II mode? If not, than you should consider this a major concern, enough to ban the use of these elevators, and opt for stair operations from the outset of the incident.

Fire service control, phase I and II, are critical safety features for safe fire department use of elevators. Without this, elevators should not be used to access the upper floors during the pre-control phase of the operation.  Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

Fire service control, phase I and II, are critical safety features for safe fire department use of elevators. Without this, elevators should not be used to access the upper floors during the pre-control phase of the operation. Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

Tips When You’re Using Elevators

If, after accounting for the various scenarios listed above, you elect to use the elevator, following are some strategies to follow.

Carry the right equipment.
Anytime fire department personnel are using an elevator for fireground operations, personnel on the elevator should be equipped with full personal protective equipment (PPE), SCBA, portable radio(s), a portable extinguisher (2½-gallon water extinguisher, or “can”), and the appropriate forcible entry/exit tools (set of irons).

A set of irons should include at least one striking, one prying and one pulling tool. The striking and prying tools (flat-head axe, TNT/Denver tool or sledgehammer coupled with a Halligan) can be used to force the elevator doors open or even breach some types of elevator hoist-way walls if an emergency exit is required. The pulling tool (6–8-foot pike pole) can be utilized to push open a roof hatch, or simply to extend a firefighter’s reach within the hoist-way to trip a hoist-way door-locking mechanism.

Remember: Under absolutely no conditions should a team of firefighters, even an engine company team, enter and operate within an elevator without a basic set of forcible entry/exit tools.

Don’t overload the elevator.
Don’t exceed more than six personnel in a standard elevator. An average firefighter weighs close to 200 pounds; with close to 100 pounds of additional weight in firefighting tools and PPE, each member may add 300 pounds to the elevator. For six members, that’s almost 2,000 pounds, which comes close to exceeding the capacity of many elevators, especially those in residential high-rise buildings.

Besides the issue of weight, not overloading an elevator also provides enough room for forcible exit from the elevator car. An overloaded elevator doesn’t allow members the maneuverability needed for emergency egress. Members equipped with forcible entry/exit tools should board the elevator last, so as to be in position at the front of the elevator car near the elevator doors with enough room to swing a striking tool and operate a prying tool if it becomes necessary.

Keep in mind that some elevators in larger commercial high-rise buildings have two elevator doors, one at the front and one at the rear. The door at the rear is typically the egress door for the floors above, thus allowing the first occupants to board an elevator to be the first occupants off. Position your forcible entry/exit team accordingly.

A properly equipped firefighter must be assigned to the position of elevator operator from the outset of elevator operations.  Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

A properly equipped firefighter must be assigned to the position of elevator operator from the outset of elevator operations. Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

Designate and assign a member to be the elevator operator.
The officer in charge on the elevator should designate and assign a member to be the elevator operator. The elevator operator should remain in control of that elevator until relieved or reassigned. The elevator operator should be equipped with the appropriate full PPE, SCBA, portable radio, a portable extinguisher (2½-gallon water extinguisher, or “can”), and a set of irons.

Inspect the hoist-way for water, smoke and fire.
Once an elevator is chosen for use, prior to leaving the starting location, one member should inspect the elevator hoist-way. Using a powerful hand light, direct the beam up the hoist-way through the gap located between the elevator car and the hoist-way wall. You are looking for anything unusual, but specifically any signs of water, smoke or fire.

It’s critical to inspect the hoistway for fire, smoke or water prior to traveling upward in an elevator car. This inspection procedure should be repeated when traveling longer distances, typically more than 10 flights.  Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

It’s critical to inspect the hoistway for fire, smoke or water prior to traveling upward in an elevator car. This inspection procedure should be repeated when traveling longer distances, typically more than 10 flights. Photo courtesy Dave McGrail

This inspection practice should continue with each of the periodic stops made at designated locations on the way up as you test the performance of the elevator. This is critical, especially when traveling long distances (e.g., from the lobby level to the 40th floor). Stop the elevator at least once for short distances (less than 10 flights) and two or more times for distances greater than 10 flights. Obviously, any sign of anything unusual—but specifically water, smoke or fire in the hoist-way—should dictate that all members immediately evacuate the elevator and proceed to the nearest stairwell. The incident commander must also be notified.

Note: It is extremely important to train all firefighters to stand all the way inside the elevator car when completing this inspection. If a member has one foot in and one foot out, he could sustain serious or fatal injuries should the elevator car suddenly move in either direction, which has been known to happen. Also, members should not overlook the possible use of an elevator car hatchway door, which is sometimes located at the top of the elevator car. This door can sometimes be opened to provide a continuous inspection of the hoist-way while the elevator is moving upward. However, generally these top hatchway doors are locked from the outside.

Once again, if your experience tells you that something just doesn’t look right, immediately stop the elevator, get off and get to the stairwell.

Never take an elevator below grade.
Elevators should not be used to access areas below grade during fireground operations. This seems like a commonsense recommendation, but failure to follow this procedure has had tragic results. It’s simple: If you’re above the fire when you enter the building, you’re already in a very dangerous position. Don’t exacerbate this danger by climbing into a transportation vehicle that can be very dangerous and unpredictable during fire conditions, and which travels inside a chimney that could already be filled with smoke and hot gases.

Never take an elevator directly to a reported fire floor.
Elevators should never be used to gain direct access to a reported fire floor, floor of alarm, or to the location of any other potential fire-related emergency condition during the pre-control phase of fireground operations. This recommendation is also such a commonsense principle that it might hardly seem worth mentioning. However, firefighters have been injured and killed because they failed to follow this very basic procedure. Also, civilians, who we are paid to protect and who trust us to do our jobs properly, have been injured and killed as the result of firefighter operational complacency, which started when an elevator was taken directly to the floor of alarm.

Stop two floors below the reported fire floor.
Any time an elevator is used for fireground operations, fire companies should not take the elevator to a location any closer than two floors below the reported or suspected fire floor or floor of alarm. Fire companies should stop at least two floors below and walk up the remaining two flights. The company officer in charge should notify the incident commander as to which stairwell is being used to access the fire floor, and, after the necessary size-up, whether that stairway will be designated as the attack stairway or the evacuation stairway.

Test the elevator’s performance.
If the elevator is equipped with fire service recall and control features, it should allow you to completely control all elevator operations on the way up. Unfortunately, elevator recall has been known to fail as well. Therefore, you must test the elevator’s performance on the way up to confirm that the operation is as safe as possible.

 When utilizing an elevator equipped with fire service recall and control features, fire companies should stop the elevator on the way up to the staging destination to evaluate that elevator’s performance, at least once for short distances (fewer than 10 flights) and two or more times for distances greater than 10 flights. The following items should be evaluated:

  • Does the elevator stop at the desired floor?
  • Do the elevator doors remained closed when the elevator stops?
  • Do the elevator doors open when the door open button is activated?
  • Do the elevator doors close when the door open button is released before the doors are fully opened?
  • Does the elevator car stop where the elevator car floor is level with the floor of the desired location?
  • Does the elevator perform normally and not in an erratic or potentially dangerous manner?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then evacuate the elevator and switch to the stairs to gain access to the upper floors.

Additional Elevator Size-Up Considerations

There are many other considerations when deciding whether elevators are safe to use. For example, let’s say there’s a reported fire in a commercial high-rise late at night or in the early morning (outside normal business hours). This is a time when there are few occupants inside a commercial high-rise building, typically maintenance and custodial staff. Fewer occupants can result in a delayed report of smoke or fire within the building, especially if the smoke and fire detection system has not been properly maintained or is not being properly monitored.

When dealing with residential high-rise buildings, there are generally numerous occupants in the building at night. However, as with any residential occupancy, most of the occupants will likely be asleep, so again, the fire could have spread extensively before being reported.

The point: Whether you’re facing a fire in a residential or commercial high-rise, nighttime and early morning hours are times when elevators should be used with extra caution.

On the other hand, during normal business hours at a commercial high-rise, there are countless occupants, several of who will likely call the fire department if smoke or fire is detected. Furthermore, as fire companies arrive at a building, they’re frequently met by someone from the building engineer’s staff, security personnel or the fire safety director, who may have already investigated the fire alarm location. Of course we don’t recommend that non-fire-department personnel investigate potential fire areas, but they will usually do it regardless. As a result, we can typically use elevators with less trepidation during daytime hours, in populated buildings, when there have been no second-source calls or reports of fire or smoke. Nevertheless, always stop at least two floors below the fire floor or floor of alarm! EVERY TIME!

The bottom line: If you have not received any additional information due to few occupants, or if you’re not met by someone with an explanation of the alarm, beware; you are now left to discover for yourself what is really going on above. Also, keep in mind that the information from occupants, security personnel or members of the engineering staff may not always be accurate.

A Final Word

A proper firefighting mindset drives our good habits, which in turn helps ensure our safety. Follow these elevator procedures every time, and they will protect you when it’s really necessary. Good habits on the daily, routine stuff result in the same good habits being used the night we need it!

At the very least, exercise good discipline by always stopping at least two floors below the reported fire floor or alarm location. Get out and walk up the remaining two or more flights—every time! And if you have any doubts about the safety of the elevators, use the stairs.

We cannot put out the fire or rescue occupants if we don’t safely arrive at the floor where the emergency or the fire is happening. Complacent naysayers, who take shortcuts and set bad examples, can get lucky hundreds of times as they get away with taking the elevator directly to the floor of alarm. But remember, they only have to be wrong once!

As always, let me know if you have any questions about this topic, and stay low.

Authored By: Dave McGrail

Dave McGrail is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and assistant chief with the Denver Fire Department (DFD) assigned to District #2 in the heart of Denver’s busy downtown high-rise district. As a captain, Dave served as the company commander of DFD Engine Co. 3, and then Rescue Co. 1, two of the DFD’s busiest fire companies. He instructs internationally on a wide range of fire service topics, specializing in high-rise firefighting and engine company standpipe operations. Dave holds associate’s degrees in fire science technology/fire suppression and fire prevention and bachelor’s degrees in human resource management and fire service administration.

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