Tony Tricarico: Elevator Emergencies: The Use of Fireman’s Service Elevators

By Tony Tricarico

“BEEP!” “Attention, Engine 1, Ladder 5, Battalion 2: Respond to a report of people trapped in an elevator at the following location ...”

As you board the apparatus, you start your size-up. You have been in this building before--12 stories, three elevator banks, a state-owned cluster of buildings, and not well-maintained.

We have all been there. Is this an emergency or an incident? Are the people inside injured? Panicking?  Freaking out? Well, the truth is, you can’t do anything, except know the environment you are walking into, until you get there.

On arrival at the complex, there is no evidence of an emergency. People are just walking around, enjoying the day like they haven't a care in the world. But, as you approach the building, you can hear the alarm sounding from the elevator. As the lieutenant, my first order is to my member assigned to the roof position. Although this member has been here before, I want to ensure that the operation is going to run as planned, so I instruct him to initiate Phase 1, Fireman’s Service. He enters the lobby, pulls out the key on his radio, inserts the key, and turns it to the Fireman’s service position. (Note: I refer to the “Fireman’s Service” key switch. There are different types of switches, ranging from the fire operation switch, fireman's switch, and emergency use. In this article, I refer to the New York City elevator and conveyance codes and the reference standards I used in my time on the job. Working in the South Bronx in the ’80s and ’90s in an area that had many city-owned buildings, the ladder companies became quite proficient in the operations, and we had ample opportunity to hone our skills.) Within moments, all the elevators are in the lobby, the doors open, and the occupants are freed. The newer members of your team looked over at me. One asked, “Hey, Loo, how did you know that was going to happen?”

Elevators move hundreds of thousands of people every day without incident. They are a very reliable mode of transportation, and have been for some time. But, when something goes wrong, it can be a challenging event for a rescue, and even more challenging for a recovery.

Just the same, an incident like the one described above can be likened to handling a slow ground ball if (1) you know how the machine works and (2) you can manipulate it to your advantage. If you do not understand the machine, this same scenario could have a team using forcible entry tools, hydraulic tools, air bags, and who knows what else to trash the elevator and end up placing it out of service until an elevator company comes in to repair or replace the damaged parts.

The Two Phases of Fireman’s Service

Fireman’s Service has two phases. In the first phase, elevators are recalled to the lobby or the lowest landing served by that elevator, called the “terminal floor.” If the elevator serves a basement or any subbasement level, that elevator will return to the street floor or lobby floor. Phase 1 can be activated in two ways. The first is Automatic Recall, which is initiated when a smoke detector on an elevator landing is activated or a water flow from a sprinkler is detected. If the Fireman’s Service Phase 1 was initiated automatically by the activation of a smoke detector or sprinkler water flow, the elevator cannot be returned to normal operation until the smoke detector or water flow alarm has been cleared.

Phase 1 can also be initiated manually by using the Fireman’s Service lobby keyed switch. By placing the keyed switch in the Fireman’s Service position, all elevators in that bank will be returned to the street lobby or terminal floor. Regardless of which method of initiation is used, the elevators will behave in the same manner.

An elevator traveling away from its lowest landing floor will reverse direction at the next landing without opening its doors and return nonstop to the street lobby or terminal floor. If there are opened doors at any floor, the doors will immediately close, and the elevator will return nonstop to the street or terminal floor. Door reopening devices for power-operated doors, which may be affected by smoke, heat, or flame, to prevent door closure, shall be rendered inoperative, except those mechanically activated by a safety edge, in case a person is half-lying in the elevator. The Emergency Stop button is also inoperative in Phase 1 operations.

(1) This elevator car plate has a three-position Fireman’s Service control switch.

(Photos by author.)

(2-3) The Fireman’s Service switch plate will have a two- or three-position eyed switch. A two-position switch usually will say “Normal” or “Fireman’s Service.” A three-position switch usually says “ON,” “OFF,” and “HOLD.”

When the key switch is in the “Normal” position, Fireman’s Service is off.  When you turn the key to “Fireman’s Service” or “On,” Phase 1 is activated. There are many variables on this item. It would be of benefit to you to become familiar with the switch plates in the elevators in your district and then have an elevator mechanic show you how the elevators work. As I travel doing classes on this subject, I find many variations.

Although they are all similar, the differences create nuances that need to be learned.

(4) Lobby key switch plate.

Once Phase 1 is activated one of the following will occur when the elevator car reaches the lobby or its terminal floor:

• All car and hoistway doors will open. The doors will remain open for at least eight seconds but no more than one minute and then close.

• All car and hoistway doors will open. The Fireman’s Service elevator car and hoistway doors will remain open with the car lights remaining on. Non-Fireman’s Service elevator car and hoistway doors will close between eight seconds and one minute after opening.

• All elevator car and hoistway doors will open and remain open. The car lights in the Fireman’s Service elevator cars will remain on, and the lights in the Non-Fireman’s Service cars will go off.

Phase 2

Now that we have activated Phase 1 and “captured” the elevators, let’s examine “Phase 2,” the actual operation of the elevator car. Once you have chosen your elevator, you can now place the elevator car in “Fireman’s Service” and use the controls within the car. You may be able to remove your key from the lobby key switch; leave the switch in the “Fireman’s Service” position.  If you are unable to remove the key in the lobby from the “Fireman’s Service” position, use a second key to activate the car.

Once you enter the car, place the key in the Fireman’s Service switch, and turn it to the Fireman‘s Service position. Remove the key from the lobby key switch. You can place an elevator into Fireman's Service mode, Phase 2, only at the car’s terminal floor; however, once placed in the Fireman's Service mode Phase 2, you can return all the other elevators to their normal operating mode by returning the Fireman's Service switch in the lobby back to “Normal.”   

You can choose a floor on the floor selection panel and press the “Door Close” button. As soon as the car begins to move, press the "Call Cancel" button to verify that the "Call Cancel" button is working properly.

At this point you will do one of two things. If the car stops at the next available landing, select the desired floor on the "Floor Selection" panel, and continue on your mission. If the car does not stop at the next available floor, attempt to stop the car by forcing the car doors open. Forcing the doors open will interrupt the interlock relay switch; this will stop the car immediately. Notify command, and initiate emergency evacuation procedures. This car is now out of service.

The Call Cancel button allows the operator to change the floor or the direction of travel prior to reaching the original selected floor. When the Call Cancel button is operated, the elevator car stops at the next available floor landing in the direction of travel. The doors will remain closed. You must select a new floor.  

It is recommended that the “Call Cancel” button be pressed when entering a car on Fireman’s Service.  This clears the floor selection panel of any other entries that may have been made by people using the elevator. If the car is operating normally when you reach the selected floor, press the "Door Open" button. The “Door Open” button is a constant pressure button: It must remain pressed until the door is fully open, otherwise the door will close on its own. This is a built-in safety feature in case the doors open on smoke, heat, or fire. By releasing the "Door Open" button prior to the doors being in the fully opened position, the doors will automatically and immediately close. A member leaving the elevator car must verify that the doors are fully opened. If the member leaves the car before the doors are fully opened, the door will close behind him, and he will have lost that car, which is now out of service. Don’t get caught on the outside of the elevator.

If you release the “Door Open” button and the doors fail to close automatically, press the "Door Close" button and manually assist the closing of the car doors. If the car doors still fail to close, evacuate the elevator and proceed to the nearest safe stairway. This car is now out of service.

When the elevator doors have fully opened, the elevator car will remain at the selected floor, with the doors open. To move from any floor, push the "Door Close" button and select another floor. It is recommended that when an elevator car has been placed on Fireman’s Service, it be operated by a member equipped with a radio and forcible entry tools.

Keep the following in mind when operating elevators. First, the car responds only to the floor selected by the Floor Selection button in the car in Phase 2. All elevator landing call buttons are no longer recognized, and the elevator will not stop at any floor unless selected from inside the car. Second, the Emergency Stop button is rendered inoperative during the Phase 1 operation. This prevents the civilians from impeding our operation and ensures that the car will behave as we expect it to—to go to the terminal floor. The Emergency Stop button should be operational in Phase 2. Activating the Emergency Stop button in Phase 2 will quickly stop the elevator car at any point in the hoistway.


These are some of the basics on elevator operations. Many other types of incidents can happen involving elevators and their shafts. If there is a fire on an upper floor and you need to use the elevators for fire operations, the procedures presented here will be similar, and you will be using Fireman’s Service, but there are additional variables to consider, which will be covered in future articles.

A machine will behave as we expect it to under most circumstances. The best thing you can do is use this information to find out what works for you. Get out there and drill. Know your buildings, know your district, know your job.


Tony Tricarico has been a member of the fire service since 1977. He is a captain in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), which he joined in 1981. He has served in the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. In 2002, he was assigned to the Special Operations Command and served as the captain of Squad 252 until his retirement at the end of 2008. He is a national and New York State-certified fire instructor and has instructed for the FDNY Technical Rescue School, Command School, and Task Force 1. He is a former deputy chief instructor at the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy. He instructs and lectures throughout the country on engine, truck, rapid intervention team/firefighter survival, and special operations tactics. He has been featured in training videos on collapse, elevator operations, and self-contained breathing apparatus emergencies. He is the technical operations adviser for Gel Tech Solutions. He is an active member of the Mount Sinai (NY) Volunteer Fire Department and a former chief of department. He is a contributing editor and has had many articles published in fire-related periodicals.