Can An Elevator Be Used As An Equivalency To Replace FARS?
by Captain Mike Gagliano, Seattle Fire Department
In the never-ending battle to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need to battle dangerous fires in increasingly complex buildings, one thing remains true: builders are not in the business of taking care of firefighters. That doesn’t mean they are heartless and don’t care, but that their priority is to get their building constructed in the most cost-effective way possible. When consideration like firefighter safety and building systems enter the picture, the cost goes up. And when costs rise, so does the creativity with which builders and their lobbyists attack the inclusion of building components that directly impact the ability of firefighters to handle the inevitable emergencies that will occur.
Using elevators as an equivalency for Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS) is a classic example of this tactic. In the first two part of this series, several factors were explored that clearly demonstrated the deficiencies of relying on elevators to deliver air to upper floors and over long distances.
The reality of counting on elevators to provide you with air in large buildings is a simple one: you are, best-case scenario, accepting a “late-stage air delivery” for the event. In many cases, a very late-stage delivery. The problem with late-stage air is that the fire usually doesn’t wait for you. The smoke and toxic gasses don’t pause while you load up the elevator (if it works), unload, move bottles to a staging location and then have your firefighters come off air to get the bottles replaced. The gasses just keep building, expanding into others areas of the structure, growing the fire, cutting off egress for victims and killing them. Thus, you shouldn’t be too excited about the idea of late-stage air.
One of the key tactics used by opponents of FARS is convincing the fire department that a firefighter elevator is an “equivalency” of a built-in air replenishment system. In exchange for a dedicated air delivery system that puts air at all levels immediately, fire departments are offered a “beefed up” elevator that gets a flashy designation of “Fire Service Access Elevator.” Additional shaft protection, weight capacity and recall upgrades are offered in an effort to eliminate the need for FARS.
Here’s the problem:
• It is still just an elevator.
• It is still subject to the same safeguards that disable the car.
• It is still late-stage air at the biggest fires the firefighters are ever going to battle.
Departments that allow this bait and switch to happen are giving up an essential resource (air) for an inefficient delivery method that is already required to be in place. The elevators are going to be there anyway and should be required to give some assistance to getting the firefighters as close as possible to the fire. The elevators should be fortified already and not used as a justification to get rid of FARS. If the builders proposed to eliminate water standpipes, and suggested using the elevators as a delivery system for water, they’d be laughed out of the building. Water and air should be viewed in the same way. Both need to be available readily, plentifully and without interruption. The best elevator design in the world cannot achieve, in any sense, an equivalency to FARS.
So, let’s take a look at a few considerations that every fire service leader should know when determining what concessions they’ll make to builders at the expense of their firefighter’s air supply.
Apples to apples and all that…
First, let’s establish that these two systems have very little in common. Everyone knows what an elevator is and has a good sense of its primary mission. What is less widely known is that modern elevators are essentially a computer that controls the efforts of hydraulics and cables to move a car up and down a shaft. They are designed for the safety of the occupants and thus have multiple safeguards in place that shut the car down if things aren’t just right.
FARS is an air delivery system that operates in a similar way to water standpipes. A piping system delivers continuous air, supplied by the fire department or on-site air storage bottles, to remote refill locations in the building. That is its only function and there are no other tasks for it to accomplish.
A water standpipe delivers water. FARS delivers air. Elevators are not, and never were, designed to deliver either of these resources with any degree of speed or efficiency. Any comparison of the systems is logically bereft of substance.
Verdict: Not an equivalency.
Better late than never?
The simple reality is that elevators and stairwells cannot facilitate the easy, immediate delivery of air to places firefighters need it. They couldn’t do it with water, either, so fire departments required standpipes. Since they can’t do it with air, the same requirement ought to exist for FARS, the air standpipe.
In basic terms, there is no way to make an equivalency out of something that cannot do a commensurate task. You can call it a concession but it is in no way equivalent. FARS provides air immediately, at distant locations without the use of manpower, moving systems or additional equipment. Firefighters do not have to take anything additional with them and can refill SCBA while still on air. Elevators require substantial manpower and physical exertion, along with the bottles themselves, which also run out when used and need to be refilled. And that all assumes the elevator is even working which is often not the case.
FARS provides immediate, early-stage air. Elevators (if they work) provide delayed, time-consuming/labor intensive air.
Verdict: Not an equivalency.
Don’t worry, nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…
To reasonably be considered an equivalency, the systems ought to have a similar reliability in emergency conditions. Every firefighter knows how often elevators fail even during normal, day-to-day operations. My truck company goes out to multiple stalled elevators every week and those systems are not in buildings that are on fire. This is simply a matter of how the elevator is designed and what it is designed to accomplish. The safeguards are extensive because no one wants an elevator car to plunge down the shaft at high speed and crash. So, things like brakes, interlocks and cutouts ensure that too much weight or too much movement or electrical issues or computer problems will shut it down. Many of these are exactly what occur when you try and shove multiple fully equipped firefighters and numerous air bottles into an elevator in a building that is on fire. And everything is moving at an accelerated pace that cannot easily adjust to system malfunctions. All fire departments have protocols that require checking the shafts for smoke or water. Why? Because the building is on fire and those things often get into the shaft, disabling or compromising the elevator. The elevator is simply not designed for this type of rapid movement of people/equipment and it is only used for such when absolutely necessary. And any type of seismic activity is likely going to stall the elevator. Trusting your air supply to an elevator is unnecessarily risky.
A FARS is designed to deliver air. That is its function and it does nothing else. The occupants have no interactions with the system and thus do not cause it harm or deterioration. Elevators get used all day and suffer tremendous abuse. A FARS also has a computer component, but it has very limited functionality or impact on the system. The only job of the electronics is to monitor air quality and system integrity. The likelihood of system failure is remote and it is important to recognize this key fact:
With FARS in place you have the likelihood of immediate air for firefighters. If FARS should fail, you still have the labor-intensive manual operation of using the elevator or stairs for late stage air delivery. The worst-case scenario for buildings with FARS is the best-case scenario for buildings that rely solely on elevators or stairs. Why settle for the worst-case scenario as default operating position when FARS can take care of your air supply?
Elevators are a complex system of computer, electrical and mechanical components that primarily move people up and down in a building. They have multiple “fail-safes” that stall the car when used improperly. They are not designed for rough, rapid movement of firefighters/equipment and certainly are not designed to move air. FARS is specifically designed to deliver air to all locations of the structure.
Verdict: Not an equivalency.
Up, Up and away…
People trapped on the actual fire floor are in a tough spot and need immediate help. Those above the fire will soon be in the same position if fire departments don’t act quickly. That action requires a great deal of effort to actually reach the fire and appropriate equipment that is difficult to move over long distances. But getting firefighters/equipment to the upper floors is critical if the trapped occupants are going to survive.
Elevators can only take you so far. The very best the elevator can accomplish is to deliver you two floors below the lowest level of the fire. No department anywhere would try and take the elevator to floors above the fire. That leaves all additional floors without a means to transport firefighters, equipment or air to the upper floors. They will still have water, as standpipes are the law of the land. In the late-stage world of air delivery by elevators, all air brought to the staging area would need to brought up to higher floors via the stairwell or firefighters would have to come all the way back down to staging. Imagine the challenges of getting air to floor 10 for staging and then still having to bring it to all floors above anyway. That’s what elevators offer. Why do this when the same technology that gets you your water can deliver your air?
FARS brings air to the stairwell in close proximity to every floor. If a quick fill panel is placed every 2nd or 3rd floor you are never more than one or two flights of stairs from safe, breathable air. With elevator-supplied air, if staging is on floor 10 and you run out on floor 17, it’s a long way to go to get back down to where the staging air is located. And then it’s a long way back up.
Elevators (if they work) deliver air two floors below the lowest level of the fire at great physical exertion and time consumption to firefighters. FARS puts air at all levels with no work necessary and is constantly supplied.
Verdict: Not an equivalency.
Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?
There are two resources that are non-reusable on the fireground and require a steady resupply if we are to be successful: air and water. Unlike personnel who can rest and get back in the fight or tools that are just moved to a different location, air and water are only used once and then they are gone. When viewed in this way we can see that anything that seeks to replace the immediate and continuous supply of water or air has a very high bar if it is to be accepted.
To qualify as an equivalency in replacing either water standpipes or FARS, elevators would have to do the following:
1. Deliver a continuous supply of air without taking up valuable firefighter time or energy.
2. Deliver a continuous supply of air immediately and without delays.
3. Deliver the volume of air necessary to support the activities of the firefighters.
4. Deliver air to all floors without significant gaps in refill locations.
Elevator-facilitated air resupply fails at every point. They simply cannot do the job that water standpipes and FARS were designed to do. They are an inadequate concession to the bottom line that should never be considered an equivalency by any serious fire service professional. It is critical that fire service leadership and committed FMO officers challenged with these decisions stand firm against dangerous concessions. Builders and their lobbyists are just doing their jobs when they try and decrease costs at every place they can. Those costs, however, should never be reduced at the cost of firefighter safety or operational ability.
Mike Gagliano has thirty years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle Fire Department and the United States Air Force. He is the Captain of Ladder 5 and a member of the Seattle Fire Department’s Strategic Planning Leadership Group. Captain Gagliano has written numerous fire service articles, is co-author of the bestselling book Air Management for the Fire Service and the SCBA chapter of the Handbook for Firefighters 1 & 2 from Pennwell. He is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory Board, a Director for the Firesmoke Coalition (Firesmoke.org), on the advisory board of the UL-Firefighter Safety and Research Institute and teaches across the country on Air Management, Fireground Tactics, Leadership and Company Officer Development. Mike co-hosts the popular FireEngineering radio webcast “The Mikey G and Mikey D Show” and partners with his wife Anne (Firelife.com) to teach on strategies for developing and maintaining a strong marriage/family.