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Fire Service Elevators; Are We Using them Safely?


December 19, 2007
By Dan Cook

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The harmonization of two codes regarding elevators in co-operation with the North American Free Trade Agreement has brought about a number of changes to elevators on both sides of the border. The Canadian Standards Association's B44 code and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (AMSE) A-17 code have been brought in line with one another and the resulting changes should improve our safety during fire operations in high buildings.

The harmonization of two codes regarding elevators in co-operation with the North American Free Trade Agreement has brought about a number of changes to elevators on both sides of the border. The Canadian Standards Association's B44 code and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (AMSE) A-17 code have been brought in line with one another and the resulting changes should improve our safety during fire operations in high buildings. There is always risk, however, and we should have and follow strict procedures when using elevators during fires. Any procedure that includes entering a hoistway should be discussed and practised first with an elevator technician present.

Although fire service elevators have been around on both sides of the border since the 1970s there have been considerable changes over the years. Just like going from a 1981 model of car to a 2005 model, we will expect to find differences. When fire fighters ask to show how a fire fighters' elevator works, my answer is usually, "Well, let's find out how this one works and when you have this one figured out we can try the one down the street." This may sound discouraging but remember that, like a car, they all function fairly similarly and your best training is the occasional familiarization with the elevators in your first-in area.

Try to arrange a meeting with your local contractor when he or she is doing maintenance and inspections. Have a mechanic or an inspector go through a Phase I and Phase II system test procedure, if possible. You may want to get the inspector's phone number and follow up by checking some elevator installations on your own. My bet is that if you check a few you will find one or two that do not meet the code. Finding installations that don't meet code is not unusual. Here are a few things you will most likely find:

elevators1_71821. Keys for the Firefighters Service Phase I and II are missing, or mislabelled.

2. A security system overrides Phase II operation. Usually you will find that this has been done after the occupancy check. You may find that they have provided a swipe card or extra key, but this does not meet the code. If you can issue orders in reference to CSA-B44 Section 2.27.3.3.1, which spells out exactly how it should work on newer elevators, the local inspector will probably be impressed and may decide that "those fire fighters aren't so bad, even if they do break the occasional hoistway door." The inspector may even learn something, as the code is almost 700 pages now and I doubt that anyone has it committed to memory.

3. Improper marking of elevator cars and equipment. You may find that the cars are marked numerically and the equipment in the machine room is marked alphabetically or the other way around. Insure that the Main Disconnect switch and the Traction Machine (motor that moves the car) have the same designation and it is the same as the car. This can be crucial during rescue operations, and important during fire operations as well.

4. Indicator and warning lights, it is not unusual to come across a system where the "on" and "off" lights do not work, at one of the recall switches. If one switch is turned from the "auto" position you should get an indicator light at both switches.

These are the easy ones, but I have come across installations that have done things like not stopping and cancelling all calls when switched to hold, or stopping and remaining at the first call when running in Phase II. There have been cars that would only stop for a second and continue to the next call, a bad situation if you accidentally hit an upper floor call button while loading equipment in the car and don't notice it.

Operating elevators safety

Even though all elevators do not work exactly alike, we can adopt guidelines or procedures that will allow us to operate them safely at fires in high buildings. The 1999 edition of the A-17.4 (Guide for Emergency Personnel) standard, although written for the U.S. Code specifically, does have information that pertains to us in Canada in both the Evacuation and Firefighters Procedures.

In section 2.2.2 of the standard you will find good minimum guidelines for using Phase II Emergency Firefighters Service. I would recommend that your local guidelines also address a minimum equipment inventory for safety and self-evacuation of a stalled car. As well, it would be wise to add a stop for an exit location check on your first trip about halfway to the staging floor, if you are not reasonably familiar with the building. In very high buildings you may want to make several stops and exit checks, as floor plans may change.

In the following procedures I will try to explain the reasoning of why we take certain precautions. Your department may already have good procedures in place, and if so, you should continue to use them. If you do not have procedures that meet or exceed these you may want to review them, and remember the best guidelines in the world are not going to work if you don't review and follow them.

Determine if the elevators are required. Using elevators for a fire below the sixth floor is usually counter-productive as doing your safety checks and loading equipment will take you as long as it does to take the stairs.

Activate the Phase I recall switch at the elevator lobby. Under the most recent code not all fire alarm devices are required to recall the elevator cars. Only devices (usually a smoke detector) near the cars or related elevator equipment are required to initiate Phase I recall. So unless the fire is at the recall level or in the elevator pit we should recall the cars manually. There is also a delay for cars that are on independent service, often used by movers and building personnel. There have been reported cases of fire fighters doing a manual recall and then entering the car and switching to Phase II immediately. When they reached the staging floor and exited the car the delay timed out and reverted to Phase I, causing the car to leave them at the staging floor. If you switch to manual recall first and then load the car and do your safety checks, it won't happen to you.

Check that all cars have returned to the lobby under phase I recall. Even if you do not intend to use the car in Phase II (Firefighters Emergency Service) make this part of your primary search function. If a car does not return to recall, there could be passengers trapped in the car or the car could be on fire. Elevator car fires are usually minor, as there is not much to burn, but a car filled with combustibles will be a serious situation. Check the hoistway from an adjacent car entrance if possible with a light between the car and hoistway door. Then open a hoistway door if you can't see it, but be careful. A car fell after burning through the hoisting and governor ropes in New York City barely missing some FDNY members. The cause was a mattress fire in the car.

If the Position Indicator (PI) shows the car is near the top of the hoistway and above the fire it may mean people are trapped. If the PI is not operational it may be possible to count the floors that the counterweight is from the bottom. The car will generally be the same distance or amount of floors from the top. This may mean that a rescue group will have to be sent to find the car. Unless the officer on the fire floor has determined it is safe to pass the floor in the elevator, any rescue must be by the stairs.

Ensure that all members taking the elevator are in full turnout gear, SCBA; take a short ladder and extrication equipment with you. If the car stalls you may have to force your way out of the escape hatch. All hatches in Canada open only from the car top at this time. The handrails in the car are not required to support a 200-lb. fire fighter in full gear and SCBA. Although most of us have probably gotten away with it at least once, it's best not to depend on it. You will need a Halligan or Kelly tool or a pry tool of some type with a flathead axe or hammer to force the hatch. You may need it for the car door as well if door restrictors are used.

Designate a call sign for the operator; many departments in North America use the designation "Taxi" for the car operator. Once designated, the Taxi will usually remain with the car, unless there is a situation such as immanent rescue that requires them to leave the car for a short time. This is something that can only be done with the newer elevators that incorporate a "hold" position into the in-car switch. Switching to the hold position with the door fully open and removing the key will lock the car controls. Without this feature a building occupant would be able to take the car if it is left unattended. Ensure the Taxi has a radio, to communicate with command and all divisions and groups that may require equipment or evacuation. Do not count on the in-car phone system as they have been known to fail.

Unlatch the car top hatch before using the car. This is a procedure you may want to investigate if there is already water in the hoistway, or you are dealing with a working fire and think there is a possibility of the car stalling during operations. There is a way you can unlatch the hatch from the car roof and also drop the car ceiling or investigate to see where the latch is for the ceiling. For safety reasons I would recommend that you make this a three-person procedure and have an elevator mechanic show you how to do it safely. Basically, the Taxi takes the car down to the lowest floor while a member one floor above opens the hoistway door and holds it. Another member then enters the hoistway and unlatches the hatch. The Taxi should have the door open and the in-car switch in the Hold position before opening the door on the floor above. As an extra precaution the power can be shut off at the car-top operating panel, (which maybe referred to as the car-top controller or inspection station) but don't forget to turn it back on before you finish. This procedure will save time and effort if the car does stall and you need to exit through the hatch. Under the latest codes this will be easier as we will have access at all the hoistway doors from the lobby side with a key. The procedure is time consuming, and it would probably best be done after the first companies started fire attack.

Phase II operations

Set a limit on number of fire fighters on each trip. Fire fighters usually weigh considerably more than the average person, so if you have a load limit of nine people or 1500 lbs. you would probably keep it at six or fewer fire fighters. Remember to include the weight of any equipment and hose you are taking. Sometimes it is better to limit it to a set number of fire fighters per trip no matter what the car size or weight limit is. Remember, if the car stalls you lose the occupants for fire operations, so a maximum of four or five and the Taxi is perhaps the optimum number.

Take extrication equipment and check the hoistway. Before the Taxi turns the Phase II switch to the "on" position they should check up the hoistway with a flashlight between the top of the car and the hoistway door opening to see if there is smoke or water in the hoistway. If you see small amounts of smoke or water in the hoistway it is generally still acceptable to use the car, but we would want an elevator mechanic on scene at this time for advice, if one has not already been contacted. The Taxi is also the one who would conduct an equipment check on the first trip to ensure you have everything needed to do self-evacuation from the car.

Take the car up one floor or landing and do a door operation check. In Phase II operation the door "open" and door "close" buttons become constant pressure buttons. We must hold the button in until the door is fully opened or closed. A quick way to check is to push "close" and release when the door is about halfway open. Then close the door and enter a call to the next landing. If the car does not move, push the "close" button again; some elevators require this to initiate car movement. If the car responds normally and stops at the landing, push "open" and release to check the constant pressure mode of the "open" button. You have the option of fully opening the door and checking the hoistway above the car again at this time if your procedures call for it.

Take the car to a midpoint, usually about halfway to the staging floor. If the car operates normally and stops at the landing, do another door operation check. This is also a good time to do a check of the exit locations. Most buildings will have a standard floor plan for the majority of the floors above the recall level, but if you are not familiar with the building, you may want to check the floor plans before leaving the recall level. If the Taxi also wants to check the exits, turn the key switch to "hold" and remove the key or leave someone in the car if it doesn't have that option. Check the hoistway again above the car before leaving the floor.

Now take the car to the staging floor. In most departments this is a minimum of two floors below the fire floor. If your department calls for stopping three floors below there is probably a good reason for it, so follow your local procedures. Your procedures may call for the Taxi to stay with the car, or they may give the company officer the option of using him or her for fire operations for a short time. Remember, in cars built previous to the 1990 code we did not have a "hold" position on the key switch. These older cars could be taken by building occupants. Another problem could arise if everyone ran out of the car before the door was fully open. The door would close and you would lose the elevator car. This happened to a few people when fire fighters elevators first came out in the 1970s and '80s. If the Taxi is required on the staging or fire floor, try to keep it short, as other companies will be arriving and in the lobby, awaiting transport.

This is a first trip procedure, if everything is operating normal there is no reason to repeat this procedure for the remaining trips. Usually the rest of the trips are directly to the staging floor unless members being transported are unfamiliar with the building and want to do an exit check.

Returning car to service

If you have been dealing with a minor fire or false alarm, you will want to return the car to service when you are finished with it. In Canada since 1990 you will usually find two reset switches. Both switches must be in the "off" position before resetting to "auto" position. In new buildings there will be a "bypass" position on the switch at the designated recall level. You can expect to see a" reset" position under the next code revision. These are all good reasons to stay in touch with the local elevator contractors and inspectors in your area, and learn about any changes to new installations.

If you have been using the car at a working fire and suspect that smoke or water has entered the hoistway, notify the maintenance contractor or a local elevator inspector. You should also advise them if the car was acting unusual in any way. If you have had to do a self-evacuation or extrication, turn the main disconnect switch in the machine room to "off" and lock it out until an inspector or mechanic can take responsibility for it. My personal preference as either a company officer or chief officer at the scene is to issue a written order, detailing what the problems are.

I have not addressed the procedure of carrying ropes, harnesses and related equipment for descending by rope from a car. Some people believe we should not carry this equipment and I am only aware of two cases where people slid down the hoisting ropes. The latest was during the bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993, where FDNY members found two men on top of a car with bloody hands. The other case was back in the 1960s at a fire in Alabama where fire fighters had to slide down the counterweight side with an employee of the building that they had rescued when both cars stalled at the fire floor. I would recommend you discuss the possibility of carrying this equipment in your own department. If you have elevators with blind hoistways, it may be a good idea. W

Capt. Dan Cook is a 30-year member of Coquitlam (B.C.) Fire Rescue and has been very involved in elevator code development process, as a member on both the AMSE A-17 emergency operations committee and CSA's B44 committee. As well as a high-angle rescue instructor and trained to haz-mat technician level, Cook has been a member of SAR for 29 years as a volunteer, currently serving as a SAR manager. To comment on this article e-mail firefightcan@annexweb.com.


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