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Emergency Evacuation Elevators Require Changed Thinking




March 24, 2015 - Fire Safety/Protection

Using elevators to evacuate a facility in the event of a fire or other emergency requiring evacuation has been an available option for a few years now. This came about as a response to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, which spurred modification to the International Construction Code (ICC) and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code standards to allow using elevators for evacuating high-rise buildings.

This strategy is counter the direction posted on elevators for decades, which strictly instructed occupants that the elevators were not to be used in the case of emergency and they instead should evacuate through the stairs. Using elevators for evacuation is a cultural shift, both for occupants and facility managers, and requires clear and consistent messaging. It also needs to be accounted for in the planning process for emergency response.

Facility managers will have to understand how long occupants would be willing to wait for an elevator during an emergency. Research has shown that live updates on the status of the event, perhaps via a video panel in the elevator lobby, help to keep occupants feeling calm and informed, allowing them to tolerate waiting another minute or two for the next elevator. Planning will also have to account for how occupants will understand when the elevators are no longer an option for evacuation, such as when recalled, and should immediately proceed to the stairs.

Not just any elevator can be used as an evacuation elevator. Evacuation elevators have to meet tougher code requirements, including a standalone, smokeproof hoistway; emergency power; and manual operation by a firefighter. In existing buildings, the most likely candidates would be freight elevators or elevators for people with disabilities.

Being able to use evacuation elevators is of particular importance for facility occupants with permanent or temporary disabilities. Previously, these individuals would have evacuated to the most secure stairwell in the facility to await first-responders, and be assisted down the stairs. Using an evacuation elevator is certainly faster, and also allows mobility devices, like scooters, to remain with the person who needs them.

At Kennesaw State University, Robert Lang, chief security officer, has experienced the benefit of being able to use evacuation elevators on his campus. Under Georgia fire codes, firefighters can now use elevators for people with disabilities during an evacuation. By doing so in conjunction with the normal evacuation procedures, a six-story building with close to 12,000 people in it was evacuated in 17 minutes, Lang says.

For more on emergency evacuation strategies and innovations, click here.

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