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Code changes make elevators safer for firefighters, residents

As the harmonization of the North American Elevator Code progresses, firefighters have a safer system to use during fire operations in high buildings.   

January 21, 2008 
By Dan Cook

Diagram shows how the firefighter panel will look in elevators that comply with the 2007 code.

As the harmonization of the North American Elevator Code progresses, firefighters have a safer system to use during fire operations in high buildings.  
    The (Canadian Standards Association) CSA B-44 and (American Society Of Mechanical Engineers) ASME A-17 committees have completed the 2007 code, which now needs to be adopted by the provinces and territories.

Firefighters will most likely start to see these improvements in new buildings in late 2008 or early 2009. Changes and amendments to the 2004 code are showing up now in buildings in certain cities and provinces. Departments in smaller cities with few high buildings may not yet have had any of the 2004 code changes go into effect.

Automatic recall phase I

Automatic recall phase I exists to protect the occupants of a building. If people are in an elevator when the smoke alarm activates, the elevator will automatically take them to a safe floor, away from the fire, and then shut down with the doors open.


Under the 2007 code, all automatic elevators in public buildings will be required to have phase I automatic recall, meaning elevators are automatically sent to a safe floor once smoke detectors in the lobby or machine room go off.

Under some earlier codes, elevators could be recalled by pull stations and by sprinklers.

All these elevators will also operate in “firefighter emergency operation”, or phase II (details below). Under the new code, all elevators are required to have phase II operability; older codes required only a percentage of elevators in a building to have phase II operability.

Until now, only high buildings were required to have automatic recall and firefighter operation. (There have been some deaths of firefighters and civilians due to elevators going to the fire floor in low-rise buildings.)

It is recommended that an elevator car not be used in phase II operation when the fire is below the sixth floor. Many departments require that the fire be above the sixth floor for firefighters to use elevators on the lower floors.

Once the fire is contained or extinguished, phase II can be used to evacuate occupants and move firefighters and equipment to the fire floor.

Most Standard Operating Guidelines require that the elevator only go as far as two floors below a fire during fire operations. When the officer on the fire floor determines it is safe, the elevator can then be used to bring firefighters and equipment directly to the fire floor.

Firefighter operation phase II

In phase II, firefighters can safely use the elevators during fire operations by maintaining control from inside the elevator car.

Here are the changes that will make a difference to firefighters during fire operations.

• Separate open and close buttons are required for cars with more than one entrance. The separate buttons will be identified as either “side” or “rear” door. All operating buttons will have a minimum size of 19 millimetres.

• A “call cancel” button will be provided that will cancel all calls and stop the car at or before the next landing. This is already in the code and some jurisdictions may have it now.

• A firefighter stop switch will be available (also previously in code) but now it must be operable by a firefighter wearing turnout gloves.

• The fire panel, including the visual warning signal, additional call cancel button, stop switch, door open and close buttons and the firefighter keyed switch will be behind a locked cover. Again, some jurisdictions may already be seeing this.

• Interruption of power will not cause the elevator car to move toward or above the fire floor. The car will only be able to move a maximum of one floor toward the designated recall floor in phase I operation and only level in the zone in phase II operation.

• Multi-compartment elevators (more common in large cities) will have a visual display of the lower compartment and a lower-compartment lockout. This will allow the operator “taxi” to check and lockout the lower compartment from the top compartment.

• There will be some wording changes to the sign containing the instructions for phase II operation. The most important wording change is the last one, which now states “To automatically return to recall floor, turn key to off.” It was felt that this wording was better as the former wording might encourage firefighters to send an empty car back to the recall level, which is something that most fire departments would not do.

• There will be a common firefighter key that can be used for all firefighters elevators. This will be a big advantage to firefighters as there have been numerous problems with keys going missing or being mislabelled over the years.

The change to a common key for firefighter service elevators should make things run a lot smoother during fire operations. The most common problem with the elevators has always been missing or mislabelled keys and security service bypasses added later, which override the emergency service. By having a standard key on the apparatus when responding, firefighters will be sure that they have a key that works.

In the future, it would be good if the key would also open the car top hatch so the hoistway could be checked with a light or even with a thermal imaging camera to see if a hoistway door is hot or if there is heat entering the hoistway itself. It would be a good idea to set up a training program when your department acquires the firefighter service keys or to review any training and procedures that are already in place.

In addition to the above points, it should be noted that the firefighters panel cover might include all the floor buttons. Common sense would dictate that a high-rise building with 30 to 40 floors would probably not have all landings included in the separate firefighter panel but all the buttons might indeed be included on a panel in a building with fewer floors.

You should not find some of landing buttons under the firefighter panel that are not on the main panel. If there is a separate panel under the locked cover, it should contain all the landings, including landings which, for security reasons, are not shown or are locked out on the main panel.

The code committees believed that having the floor buttons in different locations in the car might be confusing during fire operations so all landing buttons used by firefighters are required to be together for safety reasons.

The issue of interruption of power is certainly important to firefighters, since it was permissible for the car to move in an upward direction under previous codes. It would be a good idea to talk to the manufacturer or the maintenance contractor at any high-rise buildings in your response area to find out what the car does when in phase II operation during a power failure. If the car does not level by moving toward the recall floor, find out what happens and include it in your pre-planning information for the building.

As yet, there has been no addition to the code on how firefighters are supposed to identify an elevator equipped with a counterweight displacement switch. This switch is in addition to the seismic switch, which will shut down the elevator when there is an earthquake but will allow it to run at a reduced speed in emergency service operation. The displacement switch, or “ring on a string”, will not allow the car to run if there is a possibility of a car and counterweight collision, even in emergency service operation. The problem is that there is no way to know whether the car is equipped with a displacement switch. Hopefully, there will be an amendment to the code soon to rectify this situation. In the interim, those in seismic zones may want to work with the local contractors and identify cars with displacement switches.

The CSA B-44 committee is looking for a firefighter representative to replace Dan Cook, who stepped down in September.

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