Fire & Life Safety--Elevator Signage and Evacuation

March 14, 2013
New rules for occupant elevators

Red means “stop.” Green means “go.” Don’t use the elevators during a fire. The public has been instructed by simple safety rules like these for almost 100 years now, so it may appear unbelievable when we first see the changes being made to signage in some new (extremely tall) high-rise buildings.

Studies have been produced that reevaluate the practice of not using elevators during a fire. These studies found, that in buildings where elevators were permitted to be used for evacuation, evacuation times reduced dramatically. The 2013 edition of NFPA 72 Fire Alarm & Signaling Code already includes a new section 21.6 regarding these “Occupant Evacuation Elevators.”

These will be used where buildings contain many occupants in upper floors or where occupants are mobility impaired such as high-rise apartment buildings for the elderly. Regardless, if it is more efficient and just as safe (and faster means safer) then this is a step in the right direction. It sure beats the zip lines and parachute alternatives being discussed shortly after 9/11. On second thought, anytime I can eliminate the need for having to take the stairs, I’m all for it.

Another new section, 21.5 in NFPA 72, addresses the new “Fire Service Access Elevators,” which will be for first responders to use only in an emergency. Unlike now, these new elevator(s) to be used by the emergency responders will be ‘extra’ elevators and will not take away from those that may be needed by the public.

Besides adding an elevator or two for fire fighters, other construction issues will have to be addressed to accommodate the new Occupant Evacuation Elevators. Elevator lobbies will have to be fire and smoke proof. Each elevator lobby used for evacuation will have to be made large enough to hold the rated occupant load for that floor. There will be two-way communication phones for public use to enable conversations from the lobbies down to the fire command center. Each elevator lobby must also contain an exit door to the emergency stairway since most able-bodied persons will want to begin their descent as soon as possible and probably not choose to wait for the elevator. Electronic elevator information signs in the lobbies will constantly indicate the operational status of the elevators so that people waiting there will be informed whether the elevators are working or not. Elevators with this equipment can manually or automatically dedicated to the floor or group of floors, based on the alarm information that is provided.

Construction changes and modifications

Other construction changes will require that the hoistway be protected from fire, smoke, and even water; no sprinklers will be permitted in the elevator hoistway or machine room. The elevator shunt-trip feature will not be a worry for firefighters anymore, or a danger for the public evacuees, since it will no longer be required. One unchanged rule is that elevators will still be recalled if smoke is detected in an elevator lobby.

Most of us technicians have a far greater chance of using these new elevators than we would winning the bid for installing the two-way emergency communications and addressable smoke detectors needed for each recall level, and that’s fine with me. (P.S. I understand that green and red lights will still be used to indicate the operational status of the elevators at each lobby.)