Last reviewed 4 June 2020

Can you use a lift in a fire? Mike Sopp examines the regulations surrounding the use of passenger lifts during emergency evacuation.

Under the UK fire safety legislation, the responsible person (or the equivalent in Scotland and Northern Ireland) is required to put in place an emergency evacuation plan that takes into account the evacuation of any disabled persons who may be present.

The use of passenger lifts to assist in the evacuation of disabled occupants as part of this plan is not normally recommended. However, government guidance suggests that, subject to an adequate risk assessment and suitable fire safety strategy, passenger lifts can be utilised.

Those responsible for developing an emergency evacuation plan for premises will therefore have to determine the viability of using passenger lifts as a means of escape.

Benefits and risks

BD 2466 Guidance on the Emergency Use of Lifts or Escalators for Evacuation and Fire and Rescue Services Operations (2006) from the Government, states that the use of lifts in an evacuation strategy can have a number of benefits.

This includes the timely evacuation of disabled occupants, familiarity of the use of lifts (rather than escape routes), reductions in physical effort, stair congestion and a reduction in evacuation time. However, the use of lifts can also present risks. These include:

  • current practice and training not to use general lifts for evacuation purposes

  • consistency of approach between buildings of a similar type

  • extent of passive protection and compartmentation

  • potential exposure to fire gases while waiting for a lift

  • lift and escalator availability, reliability and failure modes

  • human factors, such as exit choice behaviour, particularly where phased evacuation strategies are adopted.

Taking account of the above, practice normally dictates that passenger lifts should not be used for emergency evacuation. This is reflected in government guidance that notes that a lift not specifically designed as a fire fighting or evacuation lift is “not normally considered acceptable as a means of escape”.

However, the same guidance also notes that “normal lifts may be considered suitable for fire evacuation purposes, subject to an adequate fire risk assessment and development of a suitable fire safety strategy by a competent person”.

This latter statement is further expanded upon in BS 9999:2017 Fire Safety in the Design, Management and Use of Buildings. Code of Practice, which states that lifts not explicitly designed for evacuation should not be used for general evacuation, “but they may be used for the evacuation of disabled people” provided that certain recommendations are met.

Assessment of use

BS 9999 further states that “a lift that is not explicitly designed for evacuation may be used for evacuation, provided that it provides the same functionality as an evacuation lift” and subject to a risk assessment.

This is also reflected in the recently published BS 8899:2016 Improvement of Fire-fighting and Evacuation Provisions in Existing Lifts. Code of Practice. This document, like others states that the use of lifts should be risk assessed and “put into context as part of a wider building fire strategy”. The assessment and strategy development should include the following.

  • A review of the building design including building characterisation and environs, occupant characterisation and fire safety management.

  • The fire safety objectives of the use of lifts of disabled persons.

  • Additional fire safety precautions that can be adopted (eg protected lobbies, upgraded lift systems, CCTV, management procedures, etc).

  • Acceptance criteria and methods of analysis such as a significant reduction in evacuation time, degree of protection, etc.

  • Evacuation scenarios for analysis taking account of factors such as occupancy levels, training, mobility of occupants, etc.

When assessing the risks, all relevant fire protection measures need to be given consideration. For example, if the property has significant protective measures such as a sprinkler system and compartmentation, this may influence and enable the early use of a lift.

BS 9999 provides a useful list of factors to be considered when assessing the use of a passenger lift, including the:

  • interface between the lift control system and the fire detection and alarm system so as to support the evacuation management strategy

  • controlled operation of the lift will be possible during an evacuation (evacuation switches)

  • power supply to the lift is likely to remain usable throughout the time required for evacuation.

Other factors to consider will be in relation to the measures built into the property including the provision of a refuge area, communication equipment, protected lobbies, etc.

The risk assessment should be evaluating whether the lift meets the recommendations given in Annex G of BS 9999. The same requirements are now also found in Annex C of BS 8899. The criteria set cover both physical elements and managerial elements such as:

  • a minimum size for the lift car and doors

  • the basic requirements of BS EN 81-20/81-70 are met

  • power should be provided from a dedicated submain circuit

  • trained staff should be designated to manage the use of the lift.

Where all relevant criteria are met and the risk assessment justifies the use of the passenger lift, then a suitable strategy can be developed for the use of the lift for evacuation purposes.

In use factors

Where it is determined that a passenger lift can be used for evacuation purposes, it is essential that appropriate management procedures are adopted so as to enable an effective emergency evacuation plan integrating lift usage to be developed.

BD 2466 states that for lifts to be used for emergency evacuation, the management level in the building should be Level 1 as detailed in BS 9999, which states that “Level 1 demonstrates best practice in which the organisation’s management system is determined to meet a management system standard such as PAS 7”.

Note: PAS 7 has now been replaced by BS 9997:2019 Fire Risk Management Systems. Requirements with Guidance for Use.

BS 8899 notes that “evacuation lifts are intended to allow authorised persons to use lifts to evacuate disabled persons… they are not intended to be used by disabled people to evacuate themselves”.

Therefore, a key element of the strategy is the appointment and training of relevant staff to act as “evacuation wardens”. For example, an operator should be allocated to take control of the lift and:

  • determine the storey and part of the building indicated at the location of the fire

  • determine the storeys at which people are awaiting assistance

  • take control of the lift and proceed to move people requiring assistance to the final exit level.

From the above, it can be concluded that the responsible person will need to ensure that there is a process in place to identify those needing assistance and what floor they are located on. This can be achieved through the completion of Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) that are made known to the evacuation wardens.

The effective development of a PEEP for a member of staff or visitor is very much a collective effort that may require an input from various parties. However, it is important that a named individual is made responsible for the co-ordination of the process, including the testing process, particularly where lifts are used.

Other factors to consider will be occupant’s familiarity with the plan, their willingness to use it and the means of communicating with them. As such, procedures will need to be adopted to ensure all stakeholders are aware of the procedures and practice the procedures.

In addition, the hardware necessary to operate the lift should be tested regularly including a weekly test of the evacuation lift switches and a monthly test of the power supply.