S.F. urges new codes for fire-resistant high rise elevators

By Robert Selna
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Proposals to construct some of the nation's tallest residential towers in downtown San Francisco have prompted a call for fire code changes that would place the city at the forefront of a drive to make high-rise building elevators more resistant to fire, smoke and water.

Firefighters often are reluctant to use elevators in burning high-rise buildings because of concerns that the elevators will malfunction. They opt for stairs instead, according to San Francisco Fire Marshal Barbara Schultheis, who has urged the city to shore up its fire codes to ensure high-rise elevator safety.

Schultheis said stairs are not a viable option in the super high-rises envisioned for downtown because they would take too long — up to two hours — to ascend on foot. She hopes to present the Fire Commission with new codes that reflect advances in elevator safety in the next 30 days, before the tall towers already in the city Planning Department's pipeline are approved.

"Elevators are not really designed to be used during fires," said Schultheis. "Right now, even in a super high-rise, firefighters will want to use the stairs unless we can make the elevators safer ... and there are more things that can be done, but they're not in the codes."

Schultheis' recommendations would cover new buildings of more than 30 stories or 300 feet that have not yet received city Planning Commission approval. She has proposed pressurizing elevator shafts and lobbies with a slight but constant amount of air pressure to keep out smoke, increasing the amount of time elevator lobby walls and doors can withstand fire, and constructing sloping lobby floors so that water will travel down a strategically placed drain, rather than the elevator shaft.

A firefighter since 1993, Schultheis spent 10 of her 14 years on the force working within the Department of Building Inspection, reviewing building permit applications to make sure they complied with fire codes. She took over as fire marshal in May and said she became concerned about the city's elevator fire code requirements after reading newspaper reports about the reshaping of San Francisco's skyline with residential and other high-rises, some of which could loom 350 feet above the 853-foot Transamerica Pyramid, the city's tallest building.

Schultheis said the fact that San Francisco is situated in an active seismic zone and that fires often ignite during earthquakes may mean that the need for code changes in San Francisco is more urgent than in some other cities.

High-rise fires in San Francisco are rare. In 1993, strong winds fanned an apartment fire at the Geneva Towers high-rise complex in Visitacion Valley, killing one firefighter and injuring several residents before it was quelled. In 1988, a fire erupted in a 21-story downtown high-rise at 475 Sansome St., injuring two janitors and causing extensive water and smoke damage.

Nationally, between 1992 and 2002, an estimated 440 civilians were killed in 95,000 high-rise apartment building fires, according to statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association, which designates anything over seven stories as a high-rise. One story translates roughly to 1o feet.

Neither fires nor earthquakes seem to be deterring developers or the city Planning Department from wanting new buildings to extend skyward to ever-greater heights.

Twelve proposed downtown developments South of Market are on the Planning Department's list of new high-rise projects. They include at least 16 structures of 30 or more stories and are in different stages of the planning process, with some in preliminary discussions and others that have received final environmental reviews. At least five buildings would climb to more than 100 stories, with three at 101 stories, making them the nation's tallest towers outside of New York and Chicago.

Previously approved by the Planning Commission, but in different stages of development or construction, are nine downtown Rincon Hill area residential towers. They range in height from 30 to 60 stories.

Schultheis is concerned that the heights of the proposed new buildings greatly extend the time it would take firefighters to climb stairs to the top floors in an emergency. She estimates that in the event of an elevator failure, firefighters would need a minimum of two hours to scale a 100-story tower, placing occupants as well as rescuers in jeopardy.

Regulators and the building industry started focusing on how to increase elevator safety after the World Trade Center collapsed Sept. 11, 2001. As a result, many new buildings are equipped with the latest elevator safety technology, according to Richard Bukowski, the standards and codes coordinator for the Building and Fire Research Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department.

Few cities have implemented the kinds of code changes that Schultheis is proposing, according to Bukowski, because state and local governments typically wait for national and international code standards to be published before amending their own. While elevator fire safety improvements have been studied for several years, code changes are still in the works, he said.

In addition to Schultheis' recommendations, Bukowski said placing power generators on rooftops and equipping elevator lobbies and stairwells with cameras so that firefighters can see them remotely are techniques that might be useful. He also favors encouraging occupants to use elevators to escape high-rise fires.

Bukowski said that developers like the idea of creating safer elevators for firefighters and occupants because it allows them to place restaurants and observation decks on upper floors, which would not be permitted if stairwells were the required emergency exit route. The fact that elevators take up less space than stairwells in areas that could otherwise be leased also pleases developers, Bukowski said.

Mark Solit, lead developer for a new proposal to erect five high-rises on 2 acres at the northwest corner of First and Mission streets, said he welcomes any codes that would improve fire safety in his future projects and agreed with Bukowksi that elevators can save valuable space.

"We're all for whatever regulations and other safety measures could be taken to promote the fire safety of vertical transportation," Solit said. "In many if not all cases, developers want to place attractions at the tops of buildings and we want to have all the assurances that they are safe when we plan and build them."

The code changes suggested by Schultheis must first be approved by the San Francisco Fire Commission and the Board of Supervisors before they can be put into effect, which could take several months.

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