April 17, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

The Escape external collapsible elevator used to rescue people from a skyscraper – facing outdated US regulations.Israelis Yoav Barzilay and Jonathan Shimshoni are both in business to succeed, but what truly drives them is the desire to save lives. And if their visions are realized, it will mean a safer existence for millions of Americans.

Both head companies founded after September 11, 2001, which are intended to help rescue those trapped in burning skyscrapers.

Barzilay says that what lay behind his venture – DoublExit – is the haunting memory of watching Americans on television jumping from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center towers to their deaths.

Barzilay, who spent 30 years working in the security and rescue field, knew that there had to be a way to save people trapped in burning buildings for whom access to stairs or elevator is impossible.

For 15 years, he headed the development of combat systems, including rappelling and climbing devices for the anti-terror unit, and he was sure something could be done to prevent a scene like that in the future.

“We’ve figured out more complicated things than this,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Barzilay cofounded the Ashkelon-based DoublExit Ltd. and serves as research and development manager. His approach to developing the DoublExit escape system was very empirical and scientific.

“To fight something, you have to know who your enemy is, and assess the threat precisely,” he said.

People get trapped in skyscrapers as a result of fires, terrorist attacks or earthquakes. Whatever the cause, the biggest threat to a resident or worker in a tall building is fire and smoke. “Truly, the greatest threat is smoke inhalation – far more people die from that than from the fire actually reaching their bodies.”

A key factor in developing the solution is knowing how people will react – Barzilay’s wife, a psychologist, helped him with this component.

For example, “the problem with smoke is that while the best way to stay alive the longest is to close the door of your apartment or office to block the smoke, a person’s instinct is to open the door and head for the stairs – and once the door to the stairs is opened, the smoke rises quickly.” With the knowledge that an easily accessible external escape system exists, that instinct can be resisted.

DoublExit, which has both heat and smoke detectors, automatically deploys in a fire or other emergency situation, granting high-rise residents the option to strap themselves into a harness, make their way to the nearest window or balcony, and be automatically lowered to safety by the device. It utilizes a simple cable and harness system to lower people to safety at the controlled speed of 3.3 feet a second.

The device is generally installed within a specially designed door because doorways are considered the safest location in any building. Each unit has two harnesses, one at each end of a coated steel cable. The system, which can carry a load of at least 336 pounds, allows parents to carry children with them and helps protect them from the fire.

It takes an average of three minutes from the moment the system deploys until the first individual safely reaches the ground. Designed as secondary solution when building staircases or other escape routes are blocked, DoublExit gives trapped individuals the option to make their escape from a skyscraper in the critical minutes before rescue services arrive.

“The system brings everyone outside – that is the great advantage. Our system includes gas masks, a communication system, everything to physically and mentally help people who are trapped in a building,” he said.

Another company in the forefront of developing a rescue solution is Escape Rescue Systems. Its CEO Shimshoni, a former deputy head of the IDF Planning Branch, shares Barzilay’s sense of mission.

While the two companies are attacking the same problem, their solutions are very different.

Escape’s product is an external collapsible elevator that is kept on the roof of a building can be used to rescue people from a skyscraper. The elevator is operated by a motor also located on the roof of the building.

During an emergency, the elevator swings from the roof along the length of the building all the way down to the ground. Rescue and firefighting forces enter the elevator and can use it to evacuate people from five floors simultaneously. When the command is sent via wireless remote, the escape pods swing out and swiftly descend. The pods expand like accordions into five fireproof cabins that take firefighters to the danger zone. Each pod can evacuate 30 people at a time. Tenants exit the building through specially configured windows. The cycle of transporting responders and evacuating tenants is repeated as needed.

If a building was on fire and the stairwells were blocked, two of these external elevators could evacuate 300 people every eight minutes.

It comes at a cost – about $2 million to outfit a 40-story building. As a large-scale solution, it is more complex than the Doublexit device and more expensive.

In marketing their products in the US, both Escape and Doublexit face the same obstacle -outdated regulations.

According to the existing US standard, evacuating residents from a building during an emergency can be done in only two ways: elevators installed in the buildings, and staircases. The current American standard does not allow for the operation of external elevators or other external systems during emergency rescues.

To overcome this obstacle, Israeli companies including Doublexit and Escape, recently joined together to bring a group of four US officials to Israel to view demonstrations of their products.

Other companies included Mosrot Technologies of Netivot, Doublexit of Jerusalem, and AES (Advanced Evacuation Systems) of Nordiya. Mosrot is marketing a personal rescue kit called the ‘Spider’ which consists of harnesses made of cable, and AES has a product called the ‘Sleeve’ which deploys outside a building allowing people to slide to safety.

The visit by the American officials was an effort by the Israeli entrepreneurs to increase American awareness and focus interest on devices rescuing people from buildings, in the event of terrorism, fire or other disaster, and to see their inventions. Micha Suissa, the head of the elevator and lifting devices department at the Israel Standards Institute and the leading Israeli expert in the relatively new field of skyscraper rescues, told Ha’aretz that Israel is ahead of the American market and the rest of the world by almost two years in terms of technological developments in the field.

The visit was organized by Shimshoni who had reached the conclusion that the Israeli companies had no choice but to promote themselves to the American officials that deal with codes and safety standards, and lobby to update the codes in a way that they can market their product. In the US, voluntary standards are adopted by national agencies – and then individually adopted by state legislatures.

The companies are now working with ASTM International (a voluntary standards development organization), the National Fire Protection Association in the United States, and the Israeli Standards Institution to establish internationally accepted standards for controlled descent devices such as Doublexit. Once these standards are in place, various states can create legislation around them.

The ASTM decided several months ago to appoint Shimshoni chairman of the American national standards committee for skyscraper rescue kits. Four other Israelis are members of the committee, and of them three represent Israeli companies: Udi Nir, the son of the Sleeve’s inventor; Ilanit Pesah, the CEO of Mosrot Technologies and the developer of the Spider, and Cobi Bitton, DoublExit’s director of business development. The other Israeli member of the committee is Suissa of the Israel Standards Institute, and the rest are American professionals.

Shimshoni says that it is unusual that Israelis are initiating that activity, but that since it has begun American companies with similar solutions have joined them.

“It is true that there seems to be more innovation going on in Israel, and the energy level seems to be higher,” he told ISRAEL21c. “But we are glad American companies are joining us – we want them to join.”

He says that while the delay is frustrating, he understands “the natural conservatism of regulatory bodies.” The efforts have borne fruit. The companies have the support of New York advocacy groups for the disabled, which are concerned that the current standard overlooks the need for special escape routes for them in the event of an emergency.

In addition, after 9/11 New York firefighter organizations also understand the need for external systems that will enable rescue forces to reach high floors in the event of an inability to operate the elevators and blocked stairwells.

While working hard to make the regulatory environment favorable, the companies are moving ahead with business. Escape says that it has signed a deal to supply its evacuation system to one of the largest real-estate firms in New York.

“If all of the permits are in place, we hope to have our system installed on a major downtown high rise in New York in early fall,” says Shimshoni.

“Our strategy has been to focus on New York, even though we knew New York would be difficult, because of the regulations,” he said. “But we know it will pay off, because when we show our product abroad, from Istanbul to Singapore – after they tell us what an amazing solution we have, they ask us what people in New York have to say about it. When it comes to skyscrapers, people look to New York City.”

DoublExit, which received US patent approval in December, has signed memorandums of understanding with both an American company – Winner International in Pennsylvania, makers of The Club anti-auto theft device – and the United Kingdom-based Ozonelink to serve as its exclusive distributors in those markets.

The company intends to target the business sector first, followed by the residential sector. In late December, DoublExit reached an agreement with the Moscow-based API Group to jointly establish a new company whose exclusive goal will be to tap the mushrooming high-rise market in Russia’s capital city. Interest in the device has come from several countries, including Japan, China and Taiwan.
The fact that his company operates within the framework of an existing company – the door manufacturer, means that quick mass production will be possible as soon as the orders come in.

Barzilay said that his main concern as far as the US is concerned is that the regulators and the companies work faster than terrorists planning future operations. And that in the end, no matter which Israeli company benefits, that the devices do their job in the terrible event that they are necessary.

“I don’t go on the assumption that I am good, and my competitors are bad – there are only good people involved this. I didn’t want to develop this product because of a desire to make money, I did it because I had a deep emotional scar seeing people jump from the Trade Center. We have a solution that deals with the problem of skyscraper – but I respect every solution. As long as it works.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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