ASME A17.1 code calls for smoke and heat detectors as well as sprinkler heads to be installed in ele

It’s the perennial Catch 22: you want to run a legitimate alarm company and make sure your installations comply with all current building codes and laws. But, you realize that if your installation complies with a particular code, it could possibly cost someone his or her life. What do you do?

That is the quandary facing Daniel Desena of Double-D Security & Electric in New Milford, N.J. Desena, an almost 20-year veteran of the security industry and a volunteer firefighter for as many years, is concerned about the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A17.1. This code calls for smoke and heat detectors as well as sprinkler heads to be installed in elevator shafts.

Ideally, if there is a fire, it will trip the smoke detector, bringing the elevator cab to a pre-selected recall floor. Then, the heat detector trips and activates the sprinklers.

What ultimately concerns Desena is that when the heat detector trips, it also shuts off main-line power to the elevator, so the water from the sprinklers will not cause an electrical burst. If there is a fire and this process doesn’t work in the exact order as planned, it is, according to Desena, possible that people can become trapped in the elevator and die.

Power Shut-Off Law Is Questionable

According to the ASME’s Handbook on A17.1-1996:

“If a fire developed in an elevator machine room or hoistway, the sequence of events would typically follow this scenario.

(a) Smoke in the machine room or hoistway during the initial stage of the fire will activate the smoke detector required by Rule 211.3, recalling all elevators to the designated level on Phase I Emergency Recall Operation.

(b) As the intensity of the fire builds, the sprinkler system would be activated and the power to the elevator driving machine would be interrupted. Power would be removed even if the elevator was operating on Phase I or Phase II firefighters’ service.”

Desena likens shutting off elevator power to “hooking up the smoke alarm in your house to lock the doors when it trips.” He adds, “When there is a fire in a building, nothing should lock. This goes against that. Building elevators are also used by firefighters as a tool to evacuate and relocate occupants in a fire. This system takes away an important tool.”

Jay McNulty, project manager for Unity Electric in East Rutherford, N.J., and previously a firefighter and electrical contractor for more than 20 years, explains, “Firefighters have elevator keys. They can use the elevator for staging, rescues, etc. Once you wet the shaft, you mess up the electronics in the elevator. Even if you can turn it back on, it won’t work. I believe there is a flaw in this design. If I get stuck in an elevator with no power, I’ll be able to get out. But, if there are children or elderly people with me, they aren’t going to make it.”

Is Water the Best Option in Elevator Shafts?

Doug Reighard, captain of the New Milford Fire Department in New Milford, N.J., believes there are inherent problems having water in elevator shafts. He explains, “The sprinklers will only put the water on top of the elevator. Since the fire will probably be below the car, it isn’t doing any good. Plus, if there is an explosion in the shaft, the heat detectors can trip before the smoke detectors. My personal opinion is to remove sprinklers from elevator shafts.”

Donna Englander is a freelance writer based in Redondo Beach, Calif.

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