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A Way Out: Escape Rescue Systems Are Like Lifeboats in the Sky

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A rooftop hydraulic–winch mechanism deploys and transports a collapsible array of cabins.

Images of people jumping from the burning World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 haunted Escape Rescue Systems Inc. CEO Jonathan “Yoni” Shimshoni and his friends. None had engineering or fire-safety backgrounds, but all knew there had to be a better way. So, several years after the tragic events in 2001, they set out to develop a unique fire-evacuation system, a “21st-century fire escape.”

“When we started out we were three entrepreneurs, then we added a chief technology officer through a very interesting process,” explained Shimshoni, a retired commander in the Israeli Defense Forces who earned his PhD in Public Policy from Princeton University, where he has also taught. “We held a competition for a concept, with whoever won being invited to join the company,” he said. “We had an amazing bunch of entries – some were funny, but all were very imaginative. We insisted only on a few critical design principles.” That the system:

  • Have a handicapped-friendly design
  • Be able to transport responders up, as well as evacuees down
  • Require no special skills or training on the part of evacuees

The design that ended up being chosen, he said, is very similar to what formed the basis of Escape Rescue Systems, founded by Shimshoni and his partners in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2004. It consists of a series of collapsible cabins stored on rooftops lowered via a remote-controlled hydraulic winch system, to get responders in and occupants out during emergencies. There are two products: the Standard, a 135-person system and the Lite, a 30-person system. Standard has five cabins and Lite has two. The Lite system takes about two minutes to deploy, and each full evacuation cycle also takes approximately 2-3 min. A Lite system costs roughly US$500,000-$600,000.

What happened on 9/11, the company’s website states, “underlines the vulnerability of the building’s core and emergency stairwell as the only venues for evacuation, escape and as means of access for fire and rescue personnel.” Indeed, in a study of the towers’ collapse, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded there was a critical need for alternative evacuation and access solutions.

Still, people have been slow to accept the idea of external evacuation and the Escape Rescue Systems, even after

successful performance of a prototype in 2004. In 2006, New York City’s (NYC)’s Office of Emergency Management said it had concerns about the system, including what it felt was a potential to create chaos during evacuation and putting passengers at risk by forcing them to pass floors engulfed in flames. Although Escape Rescue Systems has not yet won any clients in NYC (or in any U.S. city, for that matter) several inquiries come from the U.S. each week, Shimshoni said, and several major installations are underway worldwide. Shimshoni believes it is only a matter of time before the system gains global acceptance, especially now that it has been approved by various international and national standards and code agencies.

Codes and Standards Unlock Doors

When Shimshoni and his partners brought their product to market in 2004, they quickly realized they had jumped the gun. “What we discovered was that the real challenge in getting our wheels off the runway was trying to go to market without codification and internationally accepted standards.” he said. “The market rolled us back, basically.” So, Shimshoni and his partners spent the next several years identifying top agencies and working with them to develop standards for alternative evacuation technologies – specifically, elevator-like solutions. That work has yielded fruit: In cooperation with the Standards Institution of Israel, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) has published a specification standard for platform rescue systems (such as the Escape Rescue Systems), and, in 2012, such technologies were included in the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code. And, Shimshoni has been a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A17 Outside Emergency Elevator Committee (chaired by Otis field process engineer Gary Nuschler). The first version of an ASME safety standard for these devices (within ASME A17.1) was set to be published in October.

“Once we had the standards and codes in place, we re-entered the market,” Shimshoni said. Since then, he said, “interest has been steady and from all over the world.” For example, he said, in mid September, he received an inquiry from a construction company building a pair of towers in Buenos Aires and a similar approach from São Paulo, Brazil. A system has already been installed at a Tel Aviv office building, and in mid September Escape Rescue Systems was installing two systems at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. These were customized with cabin dimensions able to accommodate bed-ridden patients. In Kolkata, India, he said, the company is installing a pair of systems in a hotel/residence development consisting of two 30-story towers. Currently, he said, many inquiries are coming from Russia and the state of Maharashtra, India, both of which have new tall-building codes that require external evacuation systems.

Other factors driving interest, he said, are:

  • Existing buildings not economically feasible to upgrade as fire codes are developed and become more demanding
  • A growing upper middle class willing to pay for greater safety
  • The growing recognition that hospitals and nursing homes suffer from an inability to evacuate bed- and wheelchair-ridden patients quickly, if at all. This concern has prompted inquiries from Florida, which has a higher percentage of people older than 65 (18.2%) than the U.S. overall (13.7%), according to the U.S. Census.

That is opening other doors, he added, explaining, “We are now negotiating with another hospital in Israel and are in discussions with a hospital chain.”

How It Works

Systems are anchored to buildings’ roofs and operated remotely from the ground by, depending on local law, a building’s security staff or a member of the fire department. A hydraulic-winch mechanism deploys and transports a vertical array of cabins. An array of cabins resembling a suspended scaffold is lowered, and evacuees traverse handicapped-accessible ramps to enter the cabins through specially configured windows. The array is then lowered to the ground. The first cabin to empty serves as a receptacle for a subsequent cabin and so on, with each folding into the other in a “nesting” array.

Once evacuation is complete, empty cabins may be boarded by emergency or medical personnel to be carried back up. Cabins are constructed of layers of energy-absorbent materials that can withstand and insulate temperatures of up to 600ºC. A Dutch partner manufactures the Standard system, while the Lite is manufactured in Tel Aviv. Cabin dimensions can be customized per building and intended occupancy.

Escape Rescue Systems’ sales materials point out that besides fire emergencies, the systems may be used during terrorist attacks or kidnappings. In such situations, the system can:

  • Quietly carry SWAT teams up to the targeted floors
  • Allow responders to enter a building from two-to-five floors simultaneously, providing a tactical advantage
  • Enable the simultaneous evacuation of scores of hostages or occupants

The technology is protected by international and national patents, and, fortunately, Shimshoni notes, has not yet been used in a real-life emergency.

Standard System Specifications

  • Maximum payload: 10,800 kg
  • Rooftop assembly weight: 14,000 kg
  • Power-unit container weight, including oil and fuel: 6,000 kg
  • Cabin weight: 3,800 kg
  • Total roof overhead (without passengers): 23,800 kg
  • Descending velocity range: 80 mpm
  • Ascending velocity range: 70 mpm
  • Maximum building height: 200 m (can be adapted to 300 m)
  • Capacity: five cabins, 27 people per cabin
  • Entrance door width: 750 mm
  • Exit door width: 1,200 mm
  • Wire rope cables: 4 X 20 mm, 38 T. per cable
  • Rail mechanism: designed to withstand winds up to 130 kph
  • Safety: Cable safety factor of 10; cabin anti-crush system
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