Do not use the elevator!...Unless....

Elevators? No!…well, maybe.

When there’s a fire or an emergency situation, elevators are usually off limits and building occupants are advised to use stairways instead. That’s because elevators are not always safe to operate if effects of fire reach components of the elevator system. For example, if the elevator doors open on the floor where the fire is occurring and fail to close, the elevator riders would find themselves trapped on the fire floor. Yikes!

Luckily, with advancements in building and elevator technology, recent fire/life safety code changes now permit specialized elevators to be used by building occupants for evacuation in the event of an emergency. So, how do you know when it’s safe or not safe to take an elevator?


NFPA 101 Section 7.14, NFPA 5000 Section 11.14, and IBC 3008 allow elevators for occupant evacuation where several building construction and elevator features comply with a variety of specialized requirements. The requirements all deal with keeping smoke away from the elevators for as long as practical. As soon as smoke is sensed close to the elevators, the occupant evacuation elevator system is no longer viable. The requirements address the following:

  • Occupant information (i.e. signage indicating the elevators are suitable for use and real-time messaging to occupants advising of the operating status of the elevators)
  • Display at the fire command center of conditions related to safe continued operation (i.e. location/status of each elevator car, alarm system activations, ad status of normal and standby power)
  • Fire detection, alarm and communications systems including two-way communication capability between elevator landings and fire command center
  • Full building sprinklering (except in the elevator machine/control room/space)
  • Separation of elevator machine rooms and hoist-ways from other building spaces by minimum 2-hour fire resistance-rated construction
  • Protection of electrical power and control wiring


The requirements on which the occupant evacuation shaft system is based on include the following:

  1. The elevator hoist-way must be served at each floor by an elevator lobby where building occupants can wait in safety for elevators.
  2. An enclosed exit stair needs to be located immediately adjacent to, and directly accessible from, each elevator lobby to provide a means for occupant evacuation once elevators are called out of service.
  3. The elevator hoist-way, elevator lobby, and associated enclosed exit stair (i.e., the areas that comprise the occupant evacuation shaft system) need to be protected from fire originating outside the occupant evacuation shaft system.
  4. Smoke from fire outside the occupant evacuation shaft system must not enter the occupant evacuation shaft system in sufficient quantity to initiate elevator recall via the smoke detectors in the elevator lobbies and hoist-way.
  5. Fire must not breach the occupant evacuation shaft system for the period of time that the elevators can be used effectively for occupant evacuation.
  6. Each elevator lobby must be sized to accommodate the number of persons expected to need, or benefit.
  7. Water from discharging sprinklers and fire fighter hose needs to be kept out of the hoist-way to permit elevator equipment to continue operating safely.

Reading though the detailed criteria above, you might have (correctly) guessed that the majority of existing elevators are not suitable for occupant evacuation in a fire situation. Therefore, if you do not see signs in the building lobby advising that elevators are suitable for use by for evacuation during fire, rely on exist stairs and train others to do the same.

Moving forward, it will become more and more common for dormitories, classroom buildings and other campus occupancies to have occupant evacuation elevators. But until then, please make sure you are familiar with the egress, evacuation and relocation procedures.

Please note: “Using Elevators For Occupant Evacuation” By Ron Coté was referenced for this blog post. I would highly suggest reading the full article. Additionally, for more information/ the verbatim code text and detailed related commentary on occupant evacuation elevators, please refer toNFPA’s Life Safety Code® Handbook – 2012.

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