Elevator Security Part II: Smarter and Safer Elevators

April 5, 2011
Do you have the right emergency policies for your elevators? The right elevator protocol can determine whether elevators should be locked or not in a shelter-in-place emergency, how to handle trapped occupants, and if it’s possible to use elevators during a fire. A combination of procedures and smart building technology ensures your elevators won’t leave you in a jam.

Elevators can get stuck between floors and trap people inside. In the case of a shelter-in-place emergency, security policies may include locking off the elevators — or not. Elevators can also enable a swift mass evacuation in case of a non-fire emergency, and there are discussions going on today about the possibility of using elevators — under certain conditions — to evacuate during a fire.

A building security director can consider addressing each of these potential problems with policies, procedures and, increasingly, smart building technology.

While it doesn’t happen often, elevator cars get stuck between floors more often than a need to shelter in place or evacuate. When a car does get stuck, the building security staff usually has the responsibility of helping those trapped inside the elevator remain calm until help arrives.

Security may also take on the responsibility of making sure that only certified elevator maintenance technicians or firefighters carry out any technical or rescue work.

“Elevator software should always know where the elevators are,” says James Holden, senior sales executive in Security Solutions with Buffalo Grove, IL-based Siemens Industry Inc. “Many municipalities require the elevator control panel to be located at a monitoring station,” Holden explains, which enables a swifter response when something goes wrong.

Holden also notes that regulations require elevator cars to be equipped with emergency communication systems. “We’re retrofitting elevators with smarter communication systems today and replacing the intercoms with voice over Internet (VoIP) phones,” he says.

Since 1995, Mike Fickes has contributed over 200 security articles to publications covering hotel, industrial, office, retail, critical infrastructure, and education. His interests include security management, policies, strategies, and technologies.

Regulations require owners to inspect elevator communications systems periodically to make sure they are working. VoIP phones monitor their connection continuously by looking for a handshake signal.

If the signal is lost, the phone system activates an alarm, continues Holden. It’s a way to make sure the phones are always working. Regardless of the monitoring and communications set-up, when an alarm goes off, the security staff must go to work.

“At the Willis Tower, security handles the emergency communications with people trapped in an elevator,” says Keith Kambic, director of security and life safety with Chicago-based U.S. Equities Asset Management, which manages the 110-story Willis Tower (with 104 elevators) in Chicago.

“Entrapment is a scary experience for some people, and we want to make sure that our officers understand that. When a new security officer comes to work in our command station, part of our training program is to strand him or her in an elevator for a while to understand what it feels like to be trapped and isolated.”

Kambic also trains officers to read voices, detect stress or anxiety, and to respond with a calm and reassuring tone. Officers are taught to identify everyone in the elevator and to get the names of the employers. If someone is going to miss a meeting, security will call the employer.

“When the crisis ends, and the doors open, we always have a security supervisor there to offer assistance,” Kambic says.

“Making sure people stay inside the elevators until help arrives is important too,” adds Geoff Craighead, CPP, vice president with Universal Protection Service in Santa Ana, CA. “There have been cases where people have broken open the doors and jumped out of the car, sometimes falling down the shaft.”

Wait for the expert, warns Craighead, noting that a building maintenance technician won’t have appropriate credentials. Only certified elevator technicians are qualified to service an elevator. If the certified technician is delayed and the person or people in the elevator are panicking, call the fire department. Firefighters can break into an elevator and rescue those inside. This is only for a last resort or in a medical emergency.

Shelter in Place
What do you do with the elevators when an active shooter enters the facility? “Every security director or facility manager should think about what to do with the elevators in such a situation,” says Kambic.  “We have a plan that is right for our building and we practice it.”

For example, if a shooter is on a particular floor in a building, the word generally goes out to shelter in place. You could then lock the elevators on the floor where the shooter is and stand guard at the stairwell doors. The individual won’t be able to leave the floor without being caught.

While all plans should be unique to each building, all should address issues such as when to lock the elevators and when not to. Kambric recommends tailoring a plan to your building and then asking the police to review it.

In a non-fire emergency, elevators can evacuate people with disabilities and those on upper floors.

On 9/11, the World Trade Center elevators enabled thousands of people to evacuate the South Tower in the few minutes before the second jet struck. That experience showed how valuable elevators can be during an evacuation and has produced a study group considering whether elevators may continue to be used to evacuate during a fire.

“As building system controls get smarter, it may be possible to use elevators more during evacuations,” says Holden. “If there is a fire in one bank of elevators, perhaps you could direct people to use another bank. But there are lots of considerations that would go into a new code on this subject.”

While these restrictions are being revised for the future, make sure to evaluate your own elevator emergency plans in the present.

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