You’ve probably seen signs in buildings telling you not to use lifts during a fire – but why? Couldn’t you get out of a tall building quicker if you took a lift? Let’s look at lift safety in the event of a fire – what should you do, and how can we make lifts safer?
After pressing the lift call button, how long do you normally have to wait for the lift to arrive? 30 seconds, maybe a little more? Fire is fast – as we’ve seen previously, a matter of seconds is all it takes for minor licks of flame to become a raging inferno.
Imagine waiting in a crowd of panicking people, all scrambling to get into a lift that’s probably already crammed full. Imagine having to stop on the way down to let others in. Imagine the lift doors opening to reveal a wall of flames. Imagine all of this happening while smoke builds to deadly levels around you.
It’s not a pleasant thought. But this was really happening before a protocol was developed.
A lift can’t take everyone at once. It might get some people out fast, but most people will be able to escape much faster by using the stairs. Lifts should be reserved for people who physically can’t use stairs to escape first – provided it is safe to do so.
The only exception to stairs being the fastest way out for most people is in extremely tall buildings, where high speed, high tech lifts could ferry people out rapidly, avoiding floors affected by fire and ensuring trips are timed for maximum efficiency. But if fire and smoke have encroached into the elevator shafts, then taking the lift may no longer be an option.
The hollow column of an elevator shaft can become filled with smoke, acting like a chimney. Even if fire is isolated to one floor, smoke can travel further up the building – causing damage and endangering occupants with smoke inhalation.
Elevator fire curtains can be installed to help prevent the spread of smoke using smoke seals in the side guides and headbox, making lifts safer during a fire. A protected means of escape is required in all buildings – be it a ventilated, protected series of stairwells, or a route in an open room created by fire curtains – where occupants can quickly and safely make their way out to safety.
Dangers of Using Lifts in a Fire
Normally, a properly maintained lift is extremely safe – even safer than taking the stairs. But during the later stages of a fire, this can get flipped on its head. In some buildings, a fire alarm will cause elevators to stop at a safe floor and remain locked down until the alarm is stopped. This safety feature is relatively recent – so not all lifts respond this way.
Fire damage to the lifts electrical supply can cause it to stop abruptly between floors – and if fire has breached the elevator shaft, anyone trapped in the lift is in danger of massive heat and smoke exposure. Rescue may not be possible at this point.
Heat stress takes a long time and truly infernal temperatures to have an effect on the structure of a building – so failing cables and collapsing elevator shafts, while possible, are not immediate dangers.