EVACUATION STRATEGY FOR SUPER HIGHRISE BUILDINGS
Mingchun Luo and Kelvin H L Wong
Arup Fire, Ove Arup & Partners HK Ltd
Abstract: Highrise buildings are always a major concern to the life safety of occupants due to
the elevated height and extended vertical travel distance for the egress and means of access. The
fire safety challenges of super highrise and highrise buildings have been discussed and found
that most of the challenges are related to the evacuation component. The existing evacuation
strategies for highrise buildings, i.e. total evacuation, phased evacuation and stay-in-place
approach, have been discussed in detail. In order to address the feasibility to increase the total
building evacuation efficiency of super highrise buildings, a lift evacuation strategy has been
discussed in this paper. As an example, the evacuation for a super highrise building with lifts has
been studied. The traditional total building evacuation using stairs and the proposed lift
evacuation strategy have been simulated using a 3-D evacuation software to demonstrate the
evacuation efficiency. The results showed that the total building evacuation time could be
shortened significantly. This lift evacuation strategy can be regarded as an enhancement to the
evacuation safety of super highrise buildings in case of extreme emergency without significant
changes to the traditional evacuation strategy and additional investment in safety provisions.
Although statistics suggested that highrise buildings have a lower risk of fire per unit floor area
, highrise buildings account for a very large share of people and property exposed, especially
for the large number of super highrise buildings currently constructing in Asia and Middle East.
The definition of super highrise building changes as construction technology and human
perception advanced. The US NFPA 101 Life Safety Code (2) defined highrise building with
height more than 23m. This is the maximum elevation resulted from the less favorable rescue
and fire fighting operations with the use of extendable ladders. Since highrise buildings are
unique with regard to their elevated height from conventional lower buildings, different design
considerations including additional features are required for fire safety. Prescriptive codes in a
number of countries (3, 4) have separate section to cater for highrise building fire safety design.
The additional enhancements in the prescriptive codes include suppression system, detection and
alarm, but do not include the egress component.
The current highrise building evacuation strategies, including the total building evacuation,
phased evacuation and stay-in-place approach have been reviewed in this paper. These strategies
are regarded as sufficient to handle most of the traditional fire scenarios in highrise buildings.
Following the catastrophic terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 to the prominent super highrise
building World Trade Center in New York, many questions have been asked about the resilience
of highrise buildings to withstand extreme events. There is a trend to investigate the actual
performance of buildings and determine what enhancements can be considered when building
subjected to the extreme events, especially for the prestigious new super highrise buildings close
to 500m in elevation. Evacuation component, such as how to simultaneously evacuate the
building occupants efficiently, is a hot topic for discussion. Without significant violation to
existing conventional stair evacuation strategy and additional investment in evacuation safety
provisions, a highrise building total evacuation design by using lifts as a supplementary means of
escape has been proposed in this paper. Evacuation simulations have also carried out and
demonstrated that total building evacuation time can be shortened significantly and the proposed
total building lift evacuation design can provide a higher level of evacuation safety for occupants
during the potential extreme events.
FIRE SAFETY CHALLENGES TO HIGHRISE BUILDINGS
The fire safety in highrise buildings has raised special attention by the general public and
authorities. The United States Fire Administration has issued a special report on the operation
considerations for highrise firefighting ( 5 ). The special fire safety issues related to highrise
buildings can be summarized into six major areas: fire department accessibility, egress and
people movement, natural forces, increase in occupant and fire load, combination of occupancies,
and arrangement of internal utility services. The details on the above fire safety issues have been
discussed in NFPA Handbook (6). Among the above fire safety challenges, half of them are
directly or indirectly related to the evacuation of building occupants (extended vertical travel
distance, high occupant number and different occupant types). Therefore the challenges of
highrise building evacuation will be discussed in detail.
Due to the height of highrise buildings, it is expected that occupants would take longer time to
travel from the level of their original location to the ground level. In addition to the horizontal
travel time from their initial position to the staircase lobby on the floor, the occupants are
required to travel an extended vertical distance which can up to 500m in the super highrise
buildings. Occupants may experience to walk down hundreds of flights or thousands of steps in
the staircases. Not to mention the tiredness of occupants, the slow discharge time will result in an
extensive queuing in the entrance of staircases on each floor. In some places (3, 7, 8), additional
provisions like refuge floors are provided to improve the egress conditions in highrise buildings.
The increase in occupant load of highrise buildings due to the stacking of floor upon floor up to
100 for super highrise buildings worsen the egress situation. When compared with the density of
occupants per building footprint and per staircase, the highrise buildings are significantly higher
than the lower buildings. In addition to the multi-purpose design of modern super highrise
buildings, such as observation facilities on the building top, hotel or service apartment on the
higher levels, office floors on the lower levels, and retail or exhibition facilities in the podium,
different usages and occupancies exist. The difference in occupancies who will have different
familiarity with the building and alertness further complicates the evacuation behaviour.
CURRENT HIGHRISE BUILDING EVACUTION STRATEGY
Although there are a number of prescriptive active or passive fire protection measures imposed
in the highrise buildings, the preparation of occupant evacuation is necessary for all highrise
buildings. The current highrise building evacuation strategy can be classified into full building
evacuation, partial building evacuation or no evacuation as below.
Total Building Evacuation
The traditional way of building evacuation design in case of emergency is based on the principle
of single staged total evacuation. The evacuation provisions of the building, i.e. escape staircase,
are designed to allow all floors to be evacuated simultaneously. In the current Hong Kong MoE
Code (7), discharge value tables for staircases are used to prescribe the minimum stair
requirement in new building design. These discharge value tables are formulated based on the
escape strategy of total evacuation of the building. Using the total building evacuation principle,
evacuation provisions are sufficient for all occupants to enter the staircases simultaneously and
leave the building.
The total building evacuation is the simplest strategy to implement. Once the alarm signal is
sounded, all building occupants are expected to evacuate to the staircases which lead to the
ground floor. Most of the traditional low-rise buildings evacuation design is based on the
principle of total building evacuation. In highrise buildings with large number of occupants and
elevated height, total building evacuation of all occupants will result in an extensive queuing
before discharge in the staircases. For super highrise buildings like World Trade Center (WTC),
it could take an hour to descend downwards from top floors to street level using stairs (9). The
large number of occupants descending down the staircase may also hamper the fire-fighting
access to the fire floor through staircases. It has been reported by fire fighters (10) that extra one to
two minutes were required to ascend each flight of stair with occupants descending downwards
simultaneously. In addition, occupants evacuating in stairs could be exposed to other kinds of
dangers such as tiredness, becoming dizzy or slipping on surfaces, especially when descending
thousands of steps of stairs in highrise buildings.
In highrise office buildings with large number of occupants, it has been found that the single
staged total evacuation is not practical. Therefore many highrise buildings in the world propose
to use phased evacuation in case of fire. In phased evacuation, the occupants on the most critical
floors like fire floor and floors nearby will be prioritised to evacuate first and queuing time into
staircases can be reduced. The remaining occupants of the building are evacuated subsequently
as necessary. Guideline is also available to provide the relevant principles and appropriate
recommendations in phased evacuation of office buildings (11).
The concept of phased evacuation relies heavily on adequate fire compartmentation such that any
fire occurring will be contained within the fire compartment prior to the arrival of the fire
brigades. It means that only the occupants within the compartment on fire need to be evacuated
from the building immediately, whilst the remaining occupants only need to be “alerted” to an
Early detection of a fire and the raising of an alarm, together with a suitable automatic fire
extinguishing installation for controlling the size of a fire, are important additional criteria.
Facilities should also be provided to enable the fire brigades to have quick access to the location
of fire origin. Similarly, well management control with trained “fire marshals” or “fire wardens”
and well trained and disciplined staff, together with adequate means of communication within
the building, are essential to achieve safely and orderly evacuation. It is also important that
people remaining in a building in fire are given appropriate information relating to the nature of
the incident and the action being taken to render it safe. On the other hand, the controlled phase
evacuation is relative complex, and there is a need to have relatively sophisticated
communication system and training, which are relatively expensive and may introduce delay
time before occupants who should evacuate become notified to start their evacuation.
If it was found that all exits from a floor are blocked in case of a fire, it is common to suggest the
occupants to go back to their room, close the door and seal the cracks, wave something at the
windows and phone for help. For the disabled occupants, the same stay-in-place approach has
also long been used since some of the disabled occupants are not able to descend the staircase
themselves. Stay-in-place or non-evacuation approach is the occupants remaining in the room
with an exterior window, a telephone, and a solid or fire resistant door. That room can be
regarded as a fire or smoke barrier and temporary place of safety for occupant staging. The
occupant in the room needs to contact the emergency personnel via the phone to report his or her
location. The emergency personnel will determine the appropriate method to evacuate the
occupant. In the literature (12), it has been suggested that the stay-in-place approach should also
be used for the highrise building fires. This suggestion was made after reviewing a number of
tragic fires that a number of people have died in the process of evacuating highrise buildings,
which the casualties were found in corridors and staircases away from the room of fire origin.
The essential components for the proposed stage-in-place approach include occupants located in
enclosed compartments (i.e. residential, hotel and dormitory), non-combustible building
construction, entry doors with self-closers, and provision of central alarm and voice
PROPOSED HIGHRISE BUILDING EVACUATION STRATEGY
Although the phased evacuation or the newly proposed stay-in-place approach are considered
effective to cater for most of the building fire scenarios, the community becomes more
concerned about the possibility of total building evacuation under the terrorist attacks or natural
disasters in the recent years. The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 to the World Trade
Center has also demonstrated that egress design with total building evacuation capacity is
necessary and the total building evacuation effectiveness is crucial in ensuring the building
occupants safety (13). In these extreme situations, a total evacuation of whole building instead of
individual floors is necessary to ensure the occupant safety, especially in the high-profile, high-
capacity infrastructures like super highrise or highrise buildings (14).
Emergency Lift Evacuation
Final report on the Collapse of the World Trade Center Towers by the National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST) in US (15) recommended that tall buildings should be designed
to accommodate timely full building evacuation of occupants. Building size, population, function,
iconic status, plus the counter flow due to the emergency personal should be taken into
consideration in designing the egress provisions. Without huge investment in additional
evacuation provisions like constructing more and wider stairs, lift evacuation has been put in the
agenda as one of the means to facilitate the highrise building evacuation. The development of
using protected/hardened lift has already been recommended by NIST as the next generation of
evacuation technology to be evaluated for future use. It has also recommended to consider the
hardened lift to be used for all occupants in tall buildings. Fire engineering guide in UK (16) has
also listed the use of lifts for evacuation as one of the fire safety issues maybe subjected to
evaluation as an enhancement during the extreme events.
Lift has been used as a means of escape for a limited number of people in buildings like disabled
or mobility impaired occupants who cannot descend stairs alone. In addition, lift evacuation has
been proposed and endorsed in some special high-rise structures such as the airport control tower
with restricted access, and the British Telecom Tower (18) in London and the Stratosphere
Tower (19) in Las Vegas that are open to the general public. Lift in fact is an efficient means of
evacuation during emergencies in addition to stairs for all occupants in highrise buildings. NIST
WTC investigation report indicated that the use of lifts in addition to stairs for WTC 2 top floors
have saved roughly 3,000 lives (20). The increased efficiency of lifts in conjunction with stairs
emergency evacuation has also been shown in a highrise building evacuation study (21).
Nevertheless, there is no official industry or regulatory approval method for designing such
emergency lift evacuation system. The areas of concern for lift evacuation system have been
listed out in Australia Community Safety Directorate Guideline as design reference (22). Another
comprehensive design guideline has been published to identify key issues for designer to
consider the usage of lift for emergency evacuation (23).
Proposed Lift Evacuation Strategy
A refined lift evacuation strategy which consists of combining stair evacuation from a group of
occupied floors to a refuge floor followed by lift evacuation from the refuge floor to street level
is proposed based on the existing lift evacuation strategies in the literatures ( 24 , 25 , 26 ). The
proposed lift evacuation strategy can prevent the major problems in traditional lift evacuation
design including smoke spread into lift shafts, water spillage and fire hazard to occupants in
lobbies ( 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 ). For the proposed lift evacuation strategy, occupants on each floor will
evacuate through the stairs to the refuge floors first, where the occupants can choose to travel
down to the street level by using shuttle lifts or stairs. It is recommended that both stairs and lifts
are allowed to evacuate occupants from the refuge floors, and lifts would be the primary means
in evacuation. The comparison on the proposed lift evacuation strategy with the traditional
method has been discussed in detail in the literature (31).
Refuge floors are provided in this strategy as a temporary place of safety for occupants to take a
rest and wait for the evacuation lifts during emergency evacuation. Refuge floors are seen to act
as a safe place for a short rest before people continue to escape downwards or change to another
stair when occupants encounter smoke, fire or obstruction in the original staircase. The general
requirements of refuge floors are to have adequate height, lighting, ventilation, signage, free
from obstruction, and complete with fire rated construction to separate from the rest of the
building. Refuge floors are important components in this lift evacuation strategy. The
requirements of refuge floor in this strategy will be the same, except that shuttle lifts are able to
pick up passengers on the refuge floors. Since refuge floors are originally designed to be a
temporary place of safety for the staging of building occupants during the phased evacuation, it
is safe for occupants to take rest and stay there to wait for the evacuation lifts. The risk of fire
and smoke affecting the occupants waiting in the normal lift lobbies can thus be eliminated.
In the lift evacuation strategy, shuttle lifts are used as the evacuation lifts. Local lifts within each
zone will not be used to pick up passengers between floors. The use of shuttle lifts can eliminate
the complicated control and management to pick up occupants on different levels. These shuttle
lifts only travel between the refuge floors and the street level. The shuttle lift shafts are blind
shafts where there are no openings on typical floors, therefore the provisions of a practically
complicated lift shaft pressurization system and lift lobby water entry protection can be
eliminated for these shafts completely. In order to provide a standard for the evacuation lift
design, it is suggested that the shuttle lifts for evacuation should be designed according to the
standard for fireman’s lift detailed in the respective country’s standards and regulations (32).
LIFT EVACUATION EFFICIENCY CHARACTERIZATION
In order to quantify the effectiveness of the proposed lift evacuation design, a building in the
design stage has been simulated using a commercial evacuation software STEPS (Simulation of
Transient Evacuation and Pedestrian movementS) to compare the traditional stair evacuation
design and the proposed lift evacuation design.
Total building evacuation of a proposed 500m, 100 storeys super highrise commercial building
has been simulated. The total number of occupants in the building is approximately 21,000,
which is estimated according to the prescriptive code occupant load density. Three stairs, each of
1200mm in width, have been provided. The building has four refuge floors, each serving a
maximum of 24 storeys, used as the staging area during lift evacuation and there are 14 shuttle
lifts located within the building core traveling between the refuge floors and the street level as
Evacuation Simulation Model
With the advancement of computational capacity and software technology, evacuation
simulation that can handle the individual’s human behaviour for a massive number of occupants
becomes feasible. The use of computerized evacuation simulation to characterize the efficiency
of lift evacuation has already been discussed in the literature (33). By taking the consideration of
each individual’s walking speed, escape route finding, familiarity of exits, decision making in
choosing the exits, merging between flows into staircase, queuing behaviour, etc., a realistic and
comprehensive analysing tool of evacuation can be produced. The specification of the model
input parameters consists of describing people types, body dimensions and their associated
walking speeds. The maximum walking speed and flow rate values reported in the SFPE
Handbook (34) have been adopted in the model.
The total building evacuation has been simulated in a way that all the occupants start the
evacuation at the same time. This is the worst scenario as far as stair usage is concerned. Two
scenarios, traditional evacuation using stairs only, and the proposed lift evacuation strategy of
using lifts and stairs together, have been simulated. A number of trials have been simulated for
the lift evacuation scenario until the times for the last person from stairs and lifts to reach ground
floor are the same in the model, which is the case that the discharge capacities of both stairs and
lifts are fully utilized. The numbers of occupants in the building have been plotted against time
in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Comparison of Evacuation Times
When comparing the total building evacuation times, it can be seen that using lifts and stairs in
this evacuation strategy can reduce the evacuation time by 36%. For the case of any
undetermined human factors, such as occupants hesitating and refusing to take the evacuation
lifts and insisting to use stairs for evacuation, the simulated evacuation times will be bounded by
the two cumulative percentage curves in Figure 1. Besides the total evacuation time, the time for
a certain percentage of occupants who evacuated from the building can be another indicator to
quantify the evacuation efficiency. In most cases, the total evacuation time is dominated by a few
occupants who leave the building very late. From Table 1, it is apparent that the evacuation time
can be shortened by up to 58% if a combined lift and stair evacuation strategy is adopted. This
shows that the proposed lift evacuation strategy is more effective in evacuating a large number of
occupants at the early stage of evacuation.
Table 1 Comparison on Percentage of Occupants Evacuated
Percentage evacuated stair lift + stair Difference
25% 26 mins 11 mins – 58%
50% 53 mins 25 mins – 53%
75% 80 mins 41 mins – 49%
90% 96 mins 53 mins – 45%
Sensitivity Analysis on Occupant Load Number
Sensitivity analysis has also been carried out by changing the occupant load factors on different
floors to simulate the different operation hours of the building (33). Base on the prescriptive
occupant load factors, the total number of occupants inside the building is estimated to be about
21,000. Since the building consists of different functions, the whole building would not be the
peak usage at the same time, such as during the office days the office floors would be in peak
load and observation deck would be of less visitors. Adjustments have been made on the building
occupant load as the sensitivity analysis. From the statistics on similar buildings, the office days
and holidays occupant loads are obtained and the above prescriptive peak occupant load number
is modified for a more natural representation of building occupancy for design and management
consideration. The simulation results are summarized in Table 2.
Table 2 Sensitivity Analysis on Different Number of Building Occupants
Scenarios occupants no. stairs lift + stair Difference
Prescriptive peak load ~ 21,000 110 mins 70 mins – 36%
Office days ~ 19,000 102 mins 69 mins – 32%
Holidays ~ 6,000 62 mins 46 mins – 26%
It can be found that the evacuation time has been reduced significantly for both the stair and lift
evacuation strategy. The reduction in evacuation time using the proposed lift evacuation strategy
is more obvious for the scenarios with larger number of occupant, i.e. the prescriptive peak load
and office days scenarios.
Sensitivity Analysis on Using Double Deck Shuttle Lift
Nowadays more highrise buildings prefer to use double deck lift as shuttle lift to increase the lift
shaft handling capacity (35). Sensitivity analysis has also been carried out to compare the use of
either the lower deck or both decks of shuttle lift in the proposed lift evacuation strategy (36). The
double deck lift can be programmed to park the lower deck on refuge floor first and then the
upper deck after filling up the lower deck with occupants. When the double deck lift arrives the
street level, the doors of both decks will open to allow occupants to evacuate simultaneously.
The simulation results are summarized in Table 3.
Table 3 Sensitivity Analysis on Different Number of Building Occupants
Scenarios stair lift + stair Difference
Single deck lift 110 mins 70 mins – 36%
Double decks lift 110 mins 51 mins – 54%
It shows that the building evacuation time for using single deck or both decks are different
significantly. For the case using both decks for evacuation, it has been observed from the
simulation that there is extra capacity for lift since the lift handling capacity on refuge floor is
higher than the discharge rate from stairs to refuge floor. It has been found that the efficiency of
the proposed lift evacuation is dependent on a number of variables such as building height, stair
width, occupant distribution and number. The proposed lift evacuation strategy should be tailor
made using performance based fire engineering design for individual building to optimise the
evacuation efficiency and safety of occupants.
An emergency lift evacuation strategy has been proposed and discussed which can be put into
practical use without significant violation to existing stair evacuation strategy and additional
investment in evacuation safety provisions. The shuttle lifts have been used in the proposed
strategy which can eliminate the dedicated lift shaft pressurization and water spillage protection
since there is no shaft opening on typical floors. Using refuge floors as lift evacuation pick up
and occupant staging floors can protect the occupants from fire and smoke hazards since refuge
floors are designed to be a temporary place of safety for occupant’s refuge.
A computational simulation using a proposed super highrise building as an example has been
carried out to demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed lift evacuation strategy. It has been
shown that the proposed strategy of lift evacuation has advantages over stair evacuation in terms
of total building evacuation time and percentage of occupants discharged.
Sensitivity analyses have also been carried out based on different occupant number and the use
of lower deck or both decks of shuttle lifts for evacuation to investigate the changes in
effectiveness of lift evacuation. It has been found that the evacuation time is dependent on a
number of variables such as building height, staircase width, occupant distribution and number
which the proposed lift evacuation strategy should be tailor made using performance based fire
engineering design for individual building.
It is demonstrated that the proposed lift evacuation strategy of combining stair and lift evacuation
can be integrated in new buildings to enhance total building evacuation safety without the
addition of relatively complicated implementation procedures and violation of traditional stair
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