High-rise fire: 7 must-knows about elevators

Elevators add another layer of danger to the already hostile environment of high-rise fires; knowing how they work can cut the risk

It's absolutely critical to know the type of building, its unique features and the challenging characteristics before we pull a hose line off the engine. Not having that prior knowledge is like us going in blind; it's setting ourselves up for failure before we ever walk through the front door.

Each jurisdiction should know what types of structures it has and have a plan for the crews and companies to make the fire floor. Additionally, take extra care needs to ensure that the operational guidelines that are in place recognize the potential hazards of using the elevator during fire and cold-smoke conditions in high-rise buildings.

History shows us that using elevators to put firefighters on the fire floor is a deadly option. This has been the case in 'alarm sounding' calls and 'nothing showing' calls. Hopefully, it has taught us is that although 99 percent of those calls are of no significance, we must operate as if there is fire to prevent that 1 percent incident from becoming tragedy.

No easy way up
It's not easy to take the stairs 10, 20, 40 or more flights with an alarm sounding or even smoke showing from the 22nd floor. Unfortunately, we don't know how many floors are affected until we get there.

Smoke can be on floors above and below the main fire floor. We must expect this and operate accordingly.

We have to fully understand how the elevators operate in each building we respond to. Although the basic functions are the same, some have different characteristics for fire operations and how they function in alarm mode.

Depending on the occupancy type, code they were installed under and other factors, they may recall if the building alarm system activates or they may not automatically recall unless the shaft detectors activate. They might not automatically recall at all; you must figure that out.

Two floors below
Some recommend taking the elevator to two floors below the fire floor. Here is my issue with that, and it's my issue only. 

That works if you can positively, for sure, without doubt confirm that the alarm panel is right and there is no smoke two floors below. What can happen is multiple floors alarm leaving no way of knowing which floor is the fire floor? 

Therefore, we can't be sure that two floors below are clear. We could arrive on the elevator two floors below our perceived fire floor and run into an IDLH.

Without going into specific elevator operations, here are seven things to know about elevators.

  1. Know the recall system.
  2. Know where the keys are kept. Make sure the keys are easy to access or are in your rig, if that's where you keep them.
  3. Know how the elevator fire operation is tied to the alarm system, if at all. Smoke detectors in the shaft, when activated, will generally automatically recall the elevators to the lobby without the fire department using the keys.
  4. Know where the elevator shut offs are in the event that you need to cut power or investigate the origin of smoke in the shaft.
  5. Know the floor numbers — those labeled on the actual floors and hall way/lobby information.
  6. Know which elevator banks cover which floors. This can be extremely hazardous if not paid attention to.
  7. Know how to establish lobby control of the elevators early in any incident to ensure they are used properly by fire personnel and occupants.

Limit the use of elevators during high-rise fires. Even cold smoke from smoldering or faulty equipment can cause significant harm if we step off the elevator unprepared onto an affected floor. 

The safe bet
In many high-rise buildings it is not always easy to determine where the fire is located. With thicker windows and some spaces without windows, the safe bet is to take that stairs.

This can be extremely manpower intensive and requires a large number of resources deployed early in the incident. One of the benefits to this technique is that personnel can monitor each floor as they pass it to report conditions to command. There is no guessing about conditions on each floor.

Doing this will require a close evaluation of your high-rise operational guideline due to the number of resources needed and the very specific nature of what each crew will be responsible for.

Again, these are very basic, short suggestions and techniques. These are not the only way to do things. Follow your department's guidelines and train appropriately. 

I'll see you next month From the Fireground.


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