For escape from high-rises, it's high tech to the rescue

'Executive-chute' is one of many innovations on the market. Some doubt if 'last-resort' systems work.

Down at the Safer America store in midtown Manhattan, the "high-rise kit" with the Executive-Chute - an escape parachute for skyscrapers - sells for about $1,000.

The high-rise parachute kit is not the store's bestseller - not close, says its manager. But some buy it.

Since 9/11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center, business executives, architects, engineers, and safety experts have worked to find safer ways to evacuate skyscrapers, focusing mostly on improving stairwells and elevators.

But on the fringes of this effort is a raft of what are called "last-resort" devices like the Executive-Chute, intended for people who might otherwise be trapped by blocked stairwells or inoperable elevators.

Despite opposition from many building-safety experts, the "last-resort" escape systems are being taken more seriously as federal agencies and standards-setting bodies debate the issue.

Such devices have included flame-resistant fabric bags used to lower evacuees, flexible chutes that slide down to the ground, and even a hovercraft outside a building window to rescue people. Also under consideration are accordion-like unfolding emergency elevators that operate outside the building and devices used to lower a person on a cable.

An active field

"The field is heating up, and the people who want to sell these systems are trying harder than ever to get the necessary credibility," says Jake Pauls, an independent consultant on a technical committee of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which advocates science-based fire codes and standards for buildings. Mr. Pauls says he is not enthusiastic about such devices because they may be unreliable.

In its final report on the collapse of the Twin Towers, expected this month, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is set to recommend an evaluation of "the full range of current and next generation evacuation technologies" including "exterior escape devices," says a NIST spokesman.

At the same time, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) based in West Conshohocken, Pa., which writes standards for buildings and equipment, is considering industrial standards for escape systems, several observers say.

The NFPA's "means of egress" technical committee that evaluates building exit options mulled over whether to establish a minimum criteria for design, reliability, and maintenance, Pauls says. That proposal was rejected and sent back to the technical committee for further review.

But Jonathan Shimshoni, president of Escape Rescue Systems, remains undeterred. His Tel Aviv, Israel-based company developed the Escape Rescue System, which looks like a multilevel elevator. It would unfold from within a pod and be lowered from roof storage down the side of the building while attached to tracks, picking up evacuees from window exits at each level. Emergency personnel could ride the device to pick up people who are trapped, he says.

A successful test

As a test of the system, Escape Rescue Systems successfully deployed it on a 22-story building in Tel Aviv, he says. The company opened a Manhattan office last month, where it will market the device and work with standards-setting bodies.

"We started thinking about this a year after 9/11," Mr. Shimshoni says. "Our theory was that if somebody could come up with a correct and innovative solution, then this could make thousands of skyscrapers substantially safer."

Sally Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign (SSC) and its current chairman, would like to see these systems moving faster through the official approval and standards process.

"I support investigation and research into any kind of device or system that will help people evacuate a building in an emergency," Ms. Regenhard says. "We're allowing buildings to be built where you can't get out."

An escape device might have helped save the life of the husband of her friend, and co-chair of the SSC, Monica Gabrielle. Her husband Richard, who worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center South Tower, was last seen waiting for rescue on the 78th floor.

Questions linger

Heart-rending situations aside, most experts say today's last-resort devices are potentially dangerous and not to be trusted in a critical moment.

"I'd rather see money spent on better stairs and elevators than esoteric escape devices," says Jonathan Barnett, a professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

There's nothing stopping installation of such devices - except legal liability. Building owners would probably be responsible if the system fails - and someone dies, he says.

Still, such systems have gained a bit of momentum and may one day find a niche, says Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire safety and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee of the National Construction Safety Team, which belongs to NIST for deployment in disasters.

"What a lot of experts are failing to consider is that we've got tens of thousands of older buildings in which you can't really make the stairs or elevators more robust," he says. "If some system provides an additional egress for people, I think it's a good thing."

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