Fire Department Operations Using Elevators

Fire Department Operations Using Elevators

Part One:


Battalion Chief Al Mullins 

Every day we respond to calls in high-rise buildings where we need and choose to use building elevators.  Of course, if you run a fire alarm or GOD forbid an actual fire in a high-rise building using elevators will make our job much easier.  The use of elevators in high-rise buildings during fire conditions is also a risky operation and should be done very carefully.  I am going to review some of the basic things we need to know if we are going to use elevators.

Elevators come in two types; hydraulic and electric traction.  The ones we will be using in high-rise buildings are electric traction elevators, and that is primarily because high-rise buildings are over seven stories and typically hydraulic elevators do not go above six stories.  When we do use elevators we need to take them at least two floors below the reported fire floor.  Hydraulic elevators, which at another type of elevator only go up to six floors; ergo we will not be using hydraulic elevators in high-rise fire situations. 

pg_elevators_lift_archtKnowing that we are using traction elevators tells us we need to use caution because when we look at these installations we see that the machine room for most traction systems is in a penthouse or it is located two floors above the last floor serviced by the elevator.  This fact makes the machine room very susceptible to smoke, heat and other products of combustion. 

The hoist way door (the one we see in the lobby area) has a class B fire rating and is supposed to protect the hoist way form fire for one and one half hours(the shaft that the elevator runs).  This fire rating means the door will resist the passage of fire for one and one half hour.  This does not necessarily mean that the hoistway door will stop the spread of smoke. 

The natural characteristics of the elevator shaft’s hoistway make it a veritable chimney.  We can get a significant amount of smoke moving up into the penthouse or elevator machine room.  This may cause the elevator to have a malfunction as well as  contaminate this room and perhaps the entire floor.  This contaminated floor may be significantly remote from the floor containing original fire.


elevator2Extremely helpful yet extremely Dangerous…

A very good case in point about using elevators in fire situations would be that of an incident that occurred in Detroit a few years ago.  In brief, a company that was assigned to the RIT function got into an elevator and was taking it to an upper floor.  Oh yeah and I should mention that the car they were in was in a blind shaft.  A blind elevator shaft means that there is a hoistway door lets say on the first floor and not another one until maybe the tenth floor (so “blind” from 2-8., no hoistway doors on any of those floors).  These types of installations are put in so the bosses can get to their offices without having to interact with the little people (like us).  Half way up the elevator stops and starts to fill with smoke.  Not good, we now have the RIT Company trapped in and elevator car in a blind hoistway, obviously now precariously perched above the fire. 

I will relate another story that involved elevator and saw the deaths of two firefighters.  Now please bear in mind that I do not remember all the circumstances and if you want, I would suggest that you look it up for your own edification.

elevators2The Memphis Fire department back in the early to mid 90’s lost two firefighters in a very bizarre incident at a residential high-rise fire.  The scenario was that the crews were responding to a box in this building, which was a frequent flyer, i.e. a building that they responded to on a regular basis.  As the companies approached the building, they found no indication of a fire from the exterior of the building on the Adam side.  Personnel then proceeded into the building and checked the fire control panel finding it in the trouble mode for a device on the ninth floor.

So with this in mind the crews in PPE (no SCBA face piece on) and with hoses and forcible entry tools gets in the elevator car and proceeded up to the 9th floor, the very same floor the trouble alarm is coming from.  As the door of the elevator car open, the crews are hit with heavy smoke and high heat conditions.  At this point, everyone is separated.  One firefighter remains in the car, which somehow proceeds back down, several other personnel from two different companies get out of the car.  The officer and other firefighter from (I think it was) Snorkel 7 move down the hall and onto the fire stairs. 

Use elevators but use them carefully….  

Stay tuned as part two of this article will focus on phase one and two of the elevator operations, it will be posted later in the week….

Stay safe



One Response

  1. Look at a recent article in FireEngineering where the crews from New Jersey were forced to gain access to a blind shaft elevator… Very interesting…

    If anyone has any questions on this blog let me know….


    Al “Bonzo” Mullins

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