Joining a growing number of cities committed to improving firefighter safety, Bellevue, Washington recently adopted the code requiring the installation of Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS) in all new high-rise building and transportation tunnels over 300 feet.
Included as part of a broad overview of the city’s fire safety policies, the recent move makes Bellevue one of more than 100 US municipalities requiring FARS in the construction of structures that pose increased risk to first responders.
FARS is a fixed-pipe system that allows firefighters to replenish their breathing apparatus at refill stations located throughout a structure—without having to leave the fire scene. Crews always have access to a steady supply of air, which increases their safety and allows them to remain fully engaged in fire suppression activities.
“The Bellevue Fire Department has always made firefighter safety a priority,” said Bellevue Fire Marshal Ken Carlson. “The new FARS requirement was a real cooperative effort between the local fire service and community stakeholders. The result will be safer environments for firefighters to work in, which always has a positive impact on public safety.”
According to Chief Mario Treviño, Executive Director of the Firefighter Air Coalition, a public advocacy group committed to enhancing firefighter and public safety, Bellevue’s adoption of the new code is an enlightened response to the risks faced by today’s fire crews.
“Buildings keep getting taller, more complex, and far more dangerous for firefighters.” said Treviño recently. “Yet the safety systems we provide in these buildings remain stuck in the past. We need to do better.”
Treviño cited the recent Trump Tower fire in New York City, in which one resident was killed and six firefighters injured.
“The biggest danger in that fire, as in almost every fire, was smoke. Crews had a tough time pushing through the smoke to get to those in peril. The best way to protect the occupants of high rise buildings is to ensure that responding firefighters have what they need to rescue them, especially access to a reliable sustained source of breathing air replenishment such as FARS.”
“E-11 to Command. We need air bottles to the 27th floor. Crews are running low!”
This could happen to any crew out there. It’s not uncommon to require additional supplies in high-risk situations. Not to worry, we will load an elevator with bottles and send them up. They’ll be there quickly, right?
Wrong. The only proven technology to ensure you have air at upper floors is Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS). The air standpipe does away with the need to cram bottles in the elevator or drag them up the stair in great numbers. But, let’s stick with elevators for this article and you can do additional reading on FARS here:
Elevators may, in theory, be the quickest way to send the crew air, but they can also be the most dangerous. It’s easy to believe that running elevator calls or using them as a tool during a fire is a simple, non-dangerous run. Unless you understand the mechanics behind these machines and grasp the safety features, you would be gravely mistaken.
One of the biggest problems with using elevators is complacency. We all think the elevator will operate and do what we tell it to without complications, but elevators are complex machines that have the possibility of malfunctioning.
Elevators have numerous safety features to help us avoid injurious or fatal accidents. The fundamental feature is the interlock. Every hoist way (the door leading to the elevator shaft) door is kept closed by the interlock, so unless the elevator is on a specific floor landing, the hoist way door should not open. If any hoist way is open between floors it will “break” the interlock and tell the elevator controller not to operate.
Unfortunately, there have been many instances where the interlock did not do its job and the hoist way door opened with no elevator there.
This exact incident occurred in March 2015, FF Daryl Gordon from the Cincinnati Fire Department fell down an elevator shaft where a hoistway door opened with no elevator at that floor, the smoke conditions prevented him from knowing what he was up against. This is an extremely dangerous situation for firefighters using elevators in a smoke filled environment. You may come across an open hoist way door and not recognize the elevator car is missing. If you enter the opening you may fall down the shaft and be severely injured or killed.
Traction elevators have a brake mechanism on the motor located in the machine room. This brake is not there to stop the elevator, it is only there to keep the motor and sheave (a pulley system) from free spinning when power is killed or if an elevator stops at a landing. If a traction elevator motor has power, it has torque, which keeps the sheave from free spinning. Any traction elevator that has a brake issue is in danger of falling up—Yes, I said up! Traction elevators have a counterweight, which weighs as much as the car plus 50 percent of the rated capacity of the car. On a normal ride when the elevator is not overloaded the counterweight weighs more, so if there is an issue with the brake the counterweight will fall, causing the car to slingshot—fall up.
With all the safety features elevators possess, there is one for this situation as well. On newer elevators there will be a “rope gripper” type brake, which will keep the car from ANY unintended movement, up or down. The problem is that not all elevators are new and up to code. This was the case on my department where an elevator with a brake issue “fell up” with a firefighter inside the car and with the hoist way door open. He was able to jump out of the car and through the hoist way thanks to an alert partner who noticed the elevator beginning to move while the man inside had no idea. The elevator then began a violent ascent up the shaft and stopped by slamming into the roof!
Now let’s talk about elevators in firefighter service. If you are entering a structure for any type of reported fire situation you need to place the elevators in “firefighter service” (phase 1 and phase 2). You must fully understand how this elevator operates in phase 1 and phase 2 and be aware of the dangers and nuances that may occur.
First, you must bring your key to gain access to the elevator key to place in firefighter service, some departments have that key readily available in the apparatus. Once you have the key you must find the phase 1 key panel, this will be at the designated landing zone of the elevator. Everyone has been in an elevator and seen a “star” next to a floor number, this specifies the designated landing zone and it is not always floor 1.
Captain Bill Gustin and myself learned this while attending FDIC in Indianapolis. When we arrived at the “main” lobby and were looking for the phase 1 key panel and could not find it, Captain Gustin made a call and we were informed the 2nd floor was the designated landing zone. He was asked, “didn’t you see the star on the car operating panel floor 2 button?” We did, but prior to that moment did not make the connection between the “star” and the landing zone.
Once you have located the panel you must place the elevator into phase 1 by turning the key to “on.” The most important thing to remember when in phase 1 is that when the cars return to the DL (designated landing) you must account for ALL elevators in that bank. If you are missing any elevators command must be notified immediately because as far as command is concerned, we are missing an elevator car full of people on the fire floor.
When you enter the elevator to place it in phase 2 another issue arises; there are many jurisdictions employing a “regional” key. What is important to understand is that if this is the case, when you place the elevator in phase 2 the cylinder “captures” the key, rendering it useless to other elevators. If you do not have access to more keys, then this is the ONLY elevator that can be placed in firefighter service. You must get out and pre-plan your areas to record this information in case of an actual incident.
Once the elevator is placed in phase 2 (and you are aware of any regional keys) you must pay attention to the illuminated fire hat on the panel. If this fire hat is flashing, it means that a smoke detector in the elevator machine room or hoist way has gone off. If the building contains a sprinkler system there will be a heat detector within 24” of the sprinkler. This heat detector is set to go off at a lower temperature than the sprinkler to avoid water from falling on an actively powered elevator. This has occurred in the past, causing the elevator to malfunction and not respond to in-car requests. To prevent this, the heat detector was installed. If the helmet is flashing, you are in danger of a “shunt trip” occurring. This will disengage ALL power to the elevator and it will not respond to any in-car requests and you are essentially stuck somewhere in the hoist way. It is critical to have all your gear, air packs, and forcible exit tools with you. Make sure that the person with the tools is the last one in the elevator in case they need to force the doors!
Remember, now that the elevator is in phase 2 it will only do what you tell it to do. To close the doors, you must push AND hold the button until the doors close completely. If you do not, the doors will open. Once you arrive at your destination you will need to push AND hold the door open button. This is critical to remember. If you do not push AND hold the button to open the door, the doors will automatically revert to the closed position. And unless someone is inside the elevator car when the doors close, you will be locked out and that elevator car will be rendered useless.
We have only scratched the surface of the importance of understanding how elevators function and malfunction. You must be prepared for the inevitable: a high-rise fire with inoperable elevators!
There are so many more things you need to learn about elevators. Professional firefighters must continue to educate ourselves and understand that we will train and learn throughout our entire career, not just while we’re rookies in school!
Captain (Ret) Michael Posner
Captain (Ret) Michael Posner is a 30 year veteran of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. He has been an instructor at MDFR’s Recruit Training Bureau and has designed, implemented, and conducted Operations Training for over 14 years. He is a Lead Instructor in the Officer Development Program and currently is active in emergency elevator training.