New models of the Israeli-designed emergency chute will allow escapes from buildings of 100 stories or more.An Israeli company has designed an emergency chute that would enable people to flee high-rise office buildings in the event of a fire, earthquake or other disaster.

The giant yellow slide, which resembles an attraction at a water fun park, was unveiled in Washington, D.C., Oct. 1 by Tel Aviv-based Advanced Modular Evacuation Systems. AMES, led by Israeli entrepreneur Eli Nir, sees the chute as the first major breakthrough in building safety since the invention of the fire escape.

“The tragic events of 9-11 showed us… a truth that every fire department official and every emergency manager knew for a very long time, namely that our tallest buildings and largest structures are vulnerable,” said former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a member of the AMES board of directors.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center demonstrated the obvious need for improved escape systems from high rises. However, the Israeli device is not quite ready to tackle the problems of such huge structures. The current prototype was successfully demonstrated by several men and women in an “escape” from the 11th floor of Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel. The prototype has a height limit of 22 stories, but new models now in development will be effective up to 100 stories and higher, according to the company.

The system is packaged into a relatively small, unobtrusive container, which is fitted into the walls of buildings. The fire-resistant chute, made of a material similar to the kevlar in bulletproof vests, is supported by springs and cables that coil around the shaft. The system can be stored easily and triggered either manually or by a fire alarm. Several chutes can be placed on each floor depending on need. Each chute is about three feet in diameter and can hold up to three tons.

Company officials explained that steel cables are attached to the chute, one on the top and the rest on the bottom, forming a winch system for winding the cables into a compact receptacle where the chute is stored. To deploy the system, the spring ejects and unfolds the chute to ground level, where it needs to be anchored. Building managers and even tenants will be trained in securing the bottom of the chute to a pre-designated spot. In an emergency, the chute can be secured to a tree or a vehicle.

After the user enters the chute through automatic doors, he or she is protected from heat, smoke, fire or hazardous debris. Inside the building, a control panel issues directions to the evacuees, giving the go-ahead when it is safe for the next person to enter the chute. Fifteen people per minute, or one every four seconds, can escape safely.

Acceleration down the chute, although rapid, is controlled through a series of “steps” every five floors. At the final stage of descent, the chute flattens its trajectory, allowing for a sharp deceleration and an easy stop on the landing pad.

The system can work either in a straight shot from the building to the ground level or, in a densely packed urban setting such as Manhattan, people can be evacuated from building to building.

Company officials said the system, which has already undergone more than 100 successful tests, would be on the market by spring. Each system can be custom-designed and installed within six months, on both old and new buildings, company officials said.

Nir said he expects the high cost of approximately $20,000 per chute to fall as production increases. Company officials also believe the cost of the new system will be partly offset by a reduction in insurance liability for building owners.

AMES spokesman Arik Benzvi said Nir came up with the idea for the chute after his son Ofir was trapped on the top floor of a hotel during a fire. Ofir was rescued, but it occurred to Nir that existing procedures for evacuating people from high-rise structures were inadequate. He started to think about innovative ways of getting people out of buildings faster.

“This all pre-dates 9-11, which proved that point quite horrifically to the rest of the world,” Benzvi said. “If somebody’s trapped above a fire, it’s very difficult for even the best first-response mechanism to get those people out.”