A Rising Occurrence

Imagine yourself as an interior firefighter battling a working fire involving a two-story single-family home. As often happens, the house has been struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm, kindling a fire in the tinder dry attic. As other firefighters are concentrating their efforts on the roof, your crew makes entry into the living area in an attempt to stop the rapidly advancing fire from extending into the interior of the home.

Visibility is fair, and with only a light smoky haze on the second floor, your crew spreads out and is still able to maintain contact while searching for extension into the living area. Entering a second-floor bedroom on the “Charlie” side of the structure, your attention is drawn to flames near the ceiling in the corner of the room, inside what appears to be a closet with a glass door. Armed with a six-foot hook, and concentrating on the flames above your head, you open the door and step into the closet to begin opening up the drywall to expose the fire—only, there is no floor.

A commercial elevator door (above) and a residential elevator door (below). (Photos by Alison Robins.)

A commercial elevator door (above) and a residential elevator door (below). (Photos by Alison Robins.)

A commercial elevator door (above) and a residential elevator door (below). (Photos by Alison Robins.)

A True Experience

For one firefighter during a recent incident, mental imagery wasn’t necessary as he suddenly found himself falling through what his training and experience told him should have been a solid surface. Landing in the basement 24 feet down, amazingly without suffering a major injury, he was able to activate his personal alert safety device and make his way out of the structure on his own. He escaped what could have been a fatal plunge with a few bumps and bruises and a new appreciation of the possible danger when fighting a fire in a home equipped with a residential elevator. To read the real-world, first-person perspective of this actual event, you can find the report “Firefighter Falls into Elevator Shaft at a Residential Structure Fire” at www.firefighternearmiss.com.

The relationship between firefighters and elevators has historically been precarious at best. While there is no disputing that elevators are an irreplaceable necessity in a high-rise building, during a structure fire they can certainly become a safety liability to emergency responders as well as building occupants. That’s why commercial elevators are equipped with a “firefighter mode” and special keys are used to gain control of the elevators during an emergency. Elevators in a public building present a known hazard that has been addressed by stringent code requirements and regularly scheduled safety inspections.

Single-family home elevators are very different. While most are inspected by a certified building inspector during construction, after a certificate of occupancy has been granted the homeowner has the responsibility to maintain the elevator with no oversight by a regulatory agency. These elevators do present the same risks during a structure fire: Firefighters can become entrapped inside the elevator, fall down an open vertical shaft, be struck by a moving elevator car, or be ensnared by the elevator operating system. Perhaps the characteristic that matters greatly to first responders is that elevators in commercial buildings are well marked and usually easily located for convenience while most residential elevators are designed to blend into the home environment.

Knowledge Is Safety

When you are responding to a fire alarm involving a single-family dwelling, an elevator probably isn’t high on the list of possible hazards you consider. Historically, a home elevator was considered an extravagance only to be found in the most opulent households. For several reasons, this has changed over the past few years. One factor is a large segment of the population is aging and, compared to stairs, an elevator or stair lift is a welcome relief to aching joints. Developers are also maximizing the square footage per acre of valuable residential lots by building vertically instead of horizontally. Especially in urban areas, three- and four-story townhouses are very popular, and even younger homeowners don’t enjoy trudging up several flights of steps daily when a push of a button will allow effortless travel between floors. Additionally, the cost of installing a home elevator is not as extravagant as in previous decades, with entry-level models starting around the price of an economy car.

“There has been a surge in the installation of residential elevators and stair lifts, starting around 2005,” according to Ben Crawford, chief engineer with the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office. “The lagging economy had the effect of slowing construction and the number of permits issued for a few years, but recently the number of permits issued has increased. In one metro county alone, residential elevators and stair lifts number in the thousands.”

A commercial elevator control panel.

A commercial elevator control panel.

Applying Lessons Learned

As is the case with every fireground hazard, awareness is the first line of defense. In the firefighter near miss report that inspired this article, the report submitter suggests, “Track the homes that have residential elevators installed in them via city permits, and flag the addresses to notify personnel of the hazard when dispatched.” How to accomplish this is the problem.

In addition to researching construction permits, one possible solution is to reach out to property owners for help in locating homes equipped with elevators. Perhaps a survey, using e-mail or a questionnaire included with the utility bill, could be a method for local fire departments to interact within their community in a proactive way to improve firefighter safety. Along with elevators, other possible hazards such as home oxygen systems could be identified as well.

Kevin Collier, a former firefighter with South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue and director of sales and client success for First Due Size Up, is well aware of the challenge of identifying possible threats to firefighter safety, “As homes continue to become more elaborate, elevators in private residences are not such an uncommon feature; I have run across homes with multiple elevators in my career,” Collier says. “There are many hidden dangers in the residential structures we respond to every day, basements where they are not common, indoor and outdoor pools, solar panels, and elevators. Most departments have preplans on commercial structures which highlight where the elevators and shafts are, and elevators are expected in those buildings. This makes elevators in a private residence far more dangerous because it is an unknown,“ Collier continues.

“These data exist in publicly available data sources such as the assessor’s office, the building, or possibly real-estate sites. The problem is it is simply not practical to log into these sites on every response and spend time sorting through all the potential data that could be hazardous to our crews. First Due Size Up takes all the effort away from gathering and distributing this critical data. Imagine having a preincident size-up on every single structure in your response area including every private residence! This is now a reality. We take the data gathered through many sources, programmatically sort through all of it, and then distribute just what is important to your department in a very easily consumable format allowing a rapid safety check before arriving on scene. This can be displayed on any device such as smartphones, MDTs in the units, or large monitors in the dispatch center,” Collier says.

Share Your Story

As it has always been among first responders, we keep each other safe by sharing lessons learned on the job. If you have a story to share regarding a near miss you or someone you know has experienced regarding a home elevator or any other on the job hazard, please take the time to submit your report at www.firefighternearmiss.com. If you have any suggestions you wish to share regarding a way to effectively addressing safety issues regarding elevators in private residences, please send them to NearMiss@iafc.org.

By Tommy Bishop

Tommy Bishop retired in 2009 as an assistant chief with the Marietta (GA) Fire Department after 30 years of service. He was assigned as a shift commander in the suppression division, serving as supervisor over six fire stations and incident commander during emergency events. Bishop also served his department as a firefighter/paramedic, apparatus operator, station officer, training officer, and safety officer. In 1993, he was recognized as “Firefighter of the Year” by his department for his work in training other firefighters. As a Regional Trainer with the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System since 2008, Bishop has spent the past few years as an advocate for firefighter safety. He serves the program as an advisor and trainer. His employment as a private contractor with the International Association of Fire Chiefs involves developing and delivering training presentations for firefighters in the use of the Near-Miss Web site. He has traveled around the country teaching others how to use the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System to improve the safety of firefighters.