The attacks on the World Trade Center and the collapse of both buildings highlight a major problem with our present system of emergency evacuation in high rise buildings. Elevators are shut down, and the only way to get out is through the stairwells. As people are going down, firefighters and other rescue personnel are going up, often carrying 100 pounds of equipment. Those on the top floors and persons with disabilities are often trapped and unable to escape. Firefighters are often unable to reach the higher floors in event of an inability to operate the elevators and blocked stairwells.
Dr. Jonathan Shimshoni, a retired Israeli general came up with the idea of an external evacuation system to deal with emergencies in high rise buildings. His company, Escape Rescue Systems, came up with a prototype, which consists of an external collapsible elevator, which is stored on the roof of a building and is deployed by a motor, which is also on the roof. When deployed, it goes to the ground, opens into five fireproof cabins in which emergency personnel enter and are lifted to the appropriate floors by wireless remote. Firefighters enter through the window and individuals can leave via a combination ramp/stairwell through the window into the cabin, and are lowered to the ground. Each cabin can hold up to 30 people at a time. In a fire, where stairwells are blocked, each cabin can evacuate 300 people every eight minutes. A video depicting the system in operation, including evacuation of a wheelchair user, can be found on the company's web site.
It would cost about $2 million to retrofit a 40-story building.
In 2005, Escape Rescue Systems gained Designation as a Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technology from the US Department of Homeland Security. Shimshoni has been focusing his efforts to gain approval in New York and other major world cities. He has proposed that ERS finance a test of this system in the building containing their offices at 1 Penn Plaza, and the landlord, Vornado Realty, has agreed to this. However, in February, the New York City Office of Emergency Management refused to grant a permit, citing a variety of reasons, including confusion by rescuers and chaos to escapees, spreading fire by opening windows, and risk to passengers of being burned on decent.
Shimshoni acknowledges the difficulties, but argues that ERS should be allowed to go ahead with a pilot program to try to iron out the problems. Many disability rights activists, led by Alexander Wood, Executive Director of the Disabilities Network of New York City, retired fire professionals and Council Members agree, and held a press conference in March to support ERS efforts for a pilot program. Shimshoni states that for many of these concerns there is a response. The system can be devised so that it can only be operated by rescues personnel. Building occupants can be trained to safely evacuate.
On April 11, I had the opportunity to participate in a demonstration of the system at the Escape Rescue System's main office in Ramat Gan, Israel. I was struck by the ease of its operation. I observed a person in a wheelchair wheel to the ramp, through the window and into the cabin with little assistance. I got into the cabin and descended to the ground. This all happened in a matter of minutes, and all left the cabin with relative ease.
There presently is no easy way for people, whether disabled or otherwise, to evacuate a high rise building in an emergency and for emergency personnel to be deployed. New technologies are emerging, and all have their risks. However, for persons with disabilities and many others, these risks are preferable to the assurance that their very survival is at stake in case of such emergency.
- Marvin Wasserman