Elevator Action: How to Escape Being Trapped in an Elevator - ITS Tactical

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Elevator Action: How to Escape Being Trapped in an Elevator

By Bryan Black

Elevator Escape 03

How many of you remember the old Nintendo game Elevator Action? In the game you play a spy, bounding to and from elevators to reach the bottom floor of a building. As you descend, you’re dodging bullets and taking out bad guys along the way to your escape in a super fast 8-bit sports car. That’s how your normal workday commute goes anyway, right?

While you might not be dodging bullets, I’m sure you’ve always wondered about what you’d do if you found yourself in a stuck elevator. Would you reenact Die Hard and climb out the top hatch and scale the cables? Probably not, considering those emergency hatches are typically locked from the outside.

I’ll get into the details of what you should do if you find yourself trapped in an elevator, but this article might also serve as a reminder to always take the stairs. Not just for the reason that electronics will inevitably fail at the least convenient times, but also due to the implication that you’re predictable in an elevator.

Elevator Escape 10

As my friend Uri from the Red Teams Blog says, “never take the elevator.” Uri’s not a particularly paranoid person, but he always has a way of looking at things from a situational awareness aspect and is an advocate of never putting yourself in a position that can be compromised. He mentions that you can easily be tracked in an elevator, as you’re basically trapped in a box that always drops you onto a semi-fixed location that’s easy to monitor and observe. Worse, a trap can easily be set on any of the stops an elevator makes. Taking the stairs can help you familiarize yourself with exits and work on your escape plan. You do always have an escape plan, right?

Let’s get back to what to do in an emergency if you should ever find yourself trapped in an elevator, because you’re bound to ride another one, even after reading this article.

Get Control

Elevator Action

Let’s first talk about your options inside the cab of an elevator. OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) requires that all elevators are thoroughly inspected every year and that additional monthly inspections for satisfactory operation are also conducted. Records of the annual inspections are also to be posted within the vicinity of the elevator, along with the elevator’s maximum load limits. Load limits are to be posted in a conspicuous location both inside and outside of the elevator.

I mention these details so that you’ll know what kind of regulations cover elevators on a federal level and know what to look for when it comes to load limits, etc. Checking your state regulations can be helpful too, if you want to wade through the elevator code. It’s also common to see the wording in the photo below, that mentions compliance certificates (inspections) being on file somewhere other than the elevator itself.

Elevator Escape 07

Depending on the building you find yourself inside of and the type of elevator, most have a common car operating panel in which to make your desired floor stop selection from. In addition to the array of floor buttons, you’ll also find an alarm bell button and either a dedicated phone to call for help, or a help button.

The alarm bell is there to sound an audible alarm in case of an emergency to summon help. This beats tapping out morse code on the elevator door, but the alarm might not be heard if you’re away from a floor where someone can hear it. The help button should establish a two-way communication with someone that can also dispatch assistance for you if you’re trapped with no way out.

Elevator Escape 08

Most elevators also have a top-opening emergency exit, but from what I’ve been able to find out in talking with elevator repair companies and a friend that’s a local downtown firefighter, they’re locked from the outside by law. It’s not necessarily for you to access during a self-rescue attempt, but more for emergency responders to use to rescue you.

Preventative Measures

There’s a few things to mention before you might even get on an elevator, that can help prevent you from finding yourself in a scenario that requires rescuing.

  1. What’s the condition of the elevator? Does it look dilapidated or like it’s having issues? Maybe you’d be best taking the stairs to begin with.
  2. Observe the load limits of the elevator and judge whether you stepping onto the elevator is the best decision, based on the number of people already on it.
  3. Keep your cell phone charged in case it’s needed for emergency communication.
  4. Consider carrying a flashlight if it’s not already part of your EDC (every day carry.)
  5. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. If there’s a fire, take the stairs, don’t even think about evacuating a burning building in an elevator.

Elevator Escape 02

Emergency Procedures

So what should you do if your elevator gets stuck and you feel you need to utilize the emergency options, like the help button and alarm bell?

  1. Remain Calm, it can have a positive effect on those around you who may not be.
  2. If the power is out, use a flashlight or the light from your cell phone to find and press the door open button or another floor selection.
  3. If the door open button doesn’t help, activate the help button on the elevator control panel.
  4. Make note of the time that the elevator stopped working and how many people are inside with you. Report this information during your call.
  5. If the help button isn’t functioning, try using your cell phone to call 911. Most elevators are faraday cages and reception might not be possible.
  6. If you still can’t get through to anyone, use the alarm bell to try and summon assistance.
  7. Banging on the door or yelling could work as well, but don’t over exert yourself if there’s no response after awhile.
  8. Patience and time might be your only recourse while waiting for emergency responders. Did you bring snacks?
  9. If all else fails and it’s a life or death emergency, you can make the decision on whether it’s worth trying to pry the door open to see if you can climb out through the door on the floor above or below you. I’d highly advise against this option, as the elevator could spring to life and you could potentially be crushed. Your situation will of course dictate your risk level, but there’s no need to jump to this option too soon, or to even hastily set up a pee corner (see below.)

As mentioned previously, the emergency exit hatch at the top of the elevator is more than likely locked from the outside, as required by law. You may not even be able to reach this unless there’s another person in the elevator to help you, or a railing to stand on.

Elevator Action

I’ll reiterate that patience is key in a situation like this. The concept of keeping calm existed long before the British propaganda posters of WWII and is still a solid model to follow in many emergency situations.

Simply taking the time to assess your environment and determine the best course of action can work wonders, both inside an elevator and out.

What are your tips for handling an elevator emergency?

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  • Cindy Marie Brown Shao

    Know your close-quarters self-defense tactics.

  • Paul Marshall

    Good article Brian, your spot on with everything you said, being an elevator guy myself, repairs and mods

  • Dale Hamilton

    Joseph Fuller

  • Joseph Fuller

    That’s mean. Lol

  • Matt Murphy

    Red Team Rule #47: Never take the elevator

  • Eric Southland

    Just remember to check the door handles in the stairwell before you commit (and close the door behind you), some stairwells will force you to the bottom floor before you can exit.

  • redteamsblog

    So true Bryan. This is a great article and I think one that would continue to make my point: never take the elevator.

    When you take the elevator you’re putting yourself and your team at risk of compromise and even death. You are trapped on a slow moving container and cannot do anything but wait to get to the floor you need to go. It is a bad thing. Taking the stairs is better. It provides the chance to reverse course and you can remain somewhat unpredictable.


  • Cindy Marie Brown Shao

    I took the stairs once in a psyche hospital where I was using the library (honest!) And when I went out at the first floor an alarm went off. LOL

  • rottenit

    Tony Blauer has a some good elevator safety tips from a self defense perspective:


    Still looking for a protocol to establish the “pee corner”

  • service6

    I am an elevator repair tech, you are mostly correct. However there are no inspections yearly on the federal level. Texas does have yearly and 5 year inspections, but some states have no inspections. The flashlight is a good idea. Sometimes when people think elevators are stopped, they are actually moving very slow. Shine your light through the cracks in the door and if the elevator is moving just keep pressing a landing button. A lot of elevators will eventually get to a floor and open the doors. You are correct that the emergency escape hatches are locked from the outside. Never under any circumstances should you try and pull the doors open and climb out of an elevator. Doing so will put you and the technician who comes to get you out at great risk. Patience is defiantly your best option. If anyone has more questions elevator related, I would be happy to answer them.

    • sydbowen

      Hey, on a side note, if you’re trapped on top of an elevator and it starts moving, I assume you can kiss your azz goodbye? Like the guy on the Carnival Ecstasy?

    • Jerry Price

      I was just stuck on an elevator and tried to pry the door open it only opened about four inches and hit a lock or something.

    • Knowles222

      what if you knew it very unlikely a technician is coming?

    • tom cook

      What does defiantly my best option really mean?

  • Theresa Duty Cserep

    Gary Holloway Nancy Dully

  • Nancy Dully

    I will re-evaluate my taking the elevator option…just know that the fire dept would respond quickly for all the ciggy’s smoked in said elevator! 🙂

  • Paul Hardy

    Good article, as always, but I’ll admit, I was bummed when I realized you weren’t going to teach me some super secret, ninja way to escape. 😛

    • Knowles222

      so was I especially as I thought how would you get out of a lift if you knew no one was comign, or very unlikely to come.

  • Jeff MacMichael

    Yeah I was hoping for a solution using a Coke can and Paracord shoe laces. U0001f609

  • Morgan Weishar

    Roger Chao Matt Forbes David Schemitsch – see?! We were FINE

  • David Schemitsch


  • Kc R. Fox

    Sarah Elizabeth

  • Earl Herman

    Great article. I take the stairs as often as possible. Great exercise anyway. Keep up the outstanding posts!!

    • tom cook

      Stairs are preferable, yes, going down several floors or up a couple; however few of us have the time, or stamina, to climb or descend ten or twenty or seventy flights.

  • G6

    I spent some time based out of NYC (which is akin to being trapped in an elevator to begin with). It’s worth noting that the stairwells in most of the large buildings are purposed only for exiting during a fire or electrical outage. All of the doors lock from outside of the stairwell, and entering the stairwell can even set off an audible alarm. I have had the pleasure to experience all of these moments…  That being noted, in a tactical situation,  is it better to take one of the many elevator banks where you can stop off on any floor and adjust the game plan, or jog down 40 flights to a single exit where the well rested adversary may be waiting for you to exit the rabbit hole?

  • Bob

    On some elevators, the outside doors are fire doors.  And like the top exit, can only be opened manually by someone with a key.  I found out the hard way by taking the elevator one day during a thunderstorm.  Power went off and I was stuck for 45 minutes.

  • Old 1811

    Good tips, but sometimes unusable. I have serious knee injuries that prevent me from regularly taking long stair trips. Several of the office buildings I used to work in, as someone mentioned above, had locked staircases that prevented routine use. 
    And I’ve read in some magazines that being stuck in an elevator can turn out to be a lot of fun, anyway.

  • Jpage

    Most elevators have a Firemans Service Key, used only by the FD , that returns the elevator car to the lobby , opening the door and holding the car at the lobby. This allows the FD to manually control the elevators in an emergency. They’re normally tubular locks with a keyway, and should be pretty easy to pick. Hopefully the elevator tech can comment……

  • Fkcu ouy idkc fkcu

    So basically you wasted your time writing this because every idea you brought up you then said, don’t do this!! You basically just told us to hit the alarm, call, and wait, no fuckin shit Sherlock

  • The concerned one

    All this common sense advice is very nice but how about a scenario in which an EMP attack has taken place and you been stuck in the elevator for seven days, what are you supposed to do starve to death? This site should be preparing one for all possible scenarios and not give us watered down advice.

  • Colt guy

    I got trapped in an elevator a couple weeks ago first time. I didn’t have my cellphone but I did have a flashlight. I figured it out on my own and I got my self out. I pounded on the the door and people heard me and they did nothing. When things go bad you have to take care of yourself.

  • Jerry Price

    I just got out from being stuck on an elevator. It was only about two foot up off the first floor. I can tell you that I pried the door open about 4 inches before it hit some type of lock. I still couldn’t see out because the exterior floor door was shut. Didn’t know how claustrophobic I was until now

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