Elevating Safely: Interfacing Fire Alarm Systems With Elevators

As I teach fire alarm seminars around the country, one of the greatest problem areas brought up is interfacing fire alarm systems with elevators. Elevator and fire inspectors do not enforce the same codes, and therein lies the problem. NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, has expanded requirements for elevators in the last couple of editions, and there will be even more in the 2019 edition. 

Let’s look at NFPA 72’s 2016 requirements. I will cover expected 2019 changes in an article next year.

New information was added in the 2010 edition on “First Responder Use Elevators” and “Elevators for Occupant-Controlled Evacuation.” The basis of both is from studies of the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. The requirements were refined in the 2013 and 2016 editions. In addition, elevator equipment is changing. No longer do we find elevator equipment rooms in all buildings with elevators. We now have many elevator systems without machine rooms, so fire alarm requirements are evolving to keep up with changes in ANSI/ASME A17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators.

First, let’s look at occupant evacuation elevators. There are plenty of online resources regarding elevator occupant evacuation operation (OEO). Using elevators for occupant evacuation is an alternative method that allows for evacuation from fire alarms initiated away from the elevator lobbies or machine spaces. One reason to use OEO is that, in buildings taller than 420 feet, an interior stairway must be added to the required exit stairwells. OEO can substitute for this additional stairway, saving space that could be used for other purposes. Obviously, if fire threatens the elevator lobby or machine spaces, occupants would not be able to use the elevators because they would be recalled and unavailable. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and the International Building Code have requirements for the use of OEO in high-rise buildings. For OEO to be used, a fire alarm system with a sprinkler system and an emergency voice alarm communication system must be in place.

Elevator occupant operation can be initiated either manually from the fire command center or any automatic fire alarm initiating device other than those used for elevator recall. Manual fire alarm boxes cannot be used because someone may actuate a box on a floor far away from the fire source. 

When an alarm is initiated, an output signal must be sent to the elevator equipment identifying the floor(s) to be evacuated. At a minimum, voice messages indicating the availability of elevators to be used for evacuation must be sent to the originating fire floor, any subsequent fire floor, two floors about the highest fire floor, two floors below the lowest fire floor, and all floors in between. All automatic voice messages must be coordinated with the text messages generated by the elevator-management system. A lot of coordination is needed between the elevator system(s) and fire alarm and emergency voice/alarm systems.

There is not much information in NFPA 72 regarding fire service access elevators. If elevator are designated for this use, the status of the elevator(s)—including location in the hoistway, direction of travel, whether they are occupied, and temperature and presence of smoke in elevator lobbies, control or machine rooms or spaces—must be displayed in the fire command center. The code permits providing this information on the fire alarm annunciator, but it is not required.

Most changes in NFPA 72 2016 were to align the language to match ANSI/ASME A17.1, the elevator code. One notable change is in Section 21.3.2. If there is not a required building fire alarm system, fire alarm initiating devices used for elevator recall are now permitted to be connected to either a nonrequired fire alarm system or to a dedicated fire alarm control unit. Previously, it allowed only the dedicated-function fire alarm control unit as an alternative to the required building fire alarm system.

Keep in mind that NFPA 72 does not provide requirements for when fire alarm initiating devices are to be installed. The elevator code does. NFPA 72 provides requirements for how to install them when required. A potential change in 2019 will be to provide access to fire alarm initiating devices installed in hoistways from outside the hoistway. This has gone back and forth during the last couple of code cycles. Early next year, I’ll let you know where it ends up.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is an indepe       ndent fire alarm presenter and consultant residing in Jasper, GA. Tom served on multiple NFPA technical committees as well as actively participating in the ICC code making process for many years. He...

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