March 4, 2007, Updated September 19, 2012

SAFEXIT’s Yoav Barzilai: The system is designed to correct ‘user-errors,’ even of those who are literally ‘running for their lives’Getting people out of a high-rise office tower or apartment building quickly and safely in an emergency usually means using the elevator or stairwell. But what happens when both of those methods are blocked, or the individual is incapacitated and can’t get to them?

Ever since buildings began rising over four or five stories, passing the reach of even the longest fire department ladders, a trio of threats have kept police and fire departments, safety officials and building engineers awake nights: fire, earthquakes, and now, terrorism.
Inventors and designers, spurred by the devastating terror attacks against the World Trade Center, have tried everything from sedate open and closed slides, to chutes and ladders, helicopters and hovercraft, external elevators, and even supposedly ‘easy-to-use’ parachutes.

After years of development and testing, Israeli company SAFEXIT is ready to offer what it believes is an innovative and elegant solution: a ‘controlled descent device’ that provides a safe, alternate escape route down the outside of the building when all other avenues are cut off. What’s more, the system can be retrofitted into new or existing buildings.

“I’ve spent all my life with [Israel’s] anti-terrorism unit in order to rescue people,” asserts Yoav Barzilai, SAFEXIT’s vice president of R&D. “This system, first and foremost, is meant to save lives; I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

SAFEXIT started off as a project of Ashkelon’s Reshafim security door company, which opened its own doors in 1982, explains CEO Rafael Salhov. But in the gruesome wake of the 9/11 attacks, Salhov realized the dire need for a safe way to get out of tall buildings like the WTC, hence the SAFEXIT concept.

“The concept is based on human nature,” Salhov told ISRAEL21c. “A person running to get out of the building will naturally head first for the door – right where the system is located. The individual doesn’t need to search for it, install, hang or connect anything.”

The SAFEXIT system attaches to the sturdiest structural member in an office or home – the door frame – and is normally hidden within a shallow alcove, behind a decorative false door. In an emergency, a fire or similar alarm causes the spring-loaded pulley and harness system, which includes emergency lighting, to punch the door aside and automatically deploy to a ready-to-use position.

Featuring two harnesses which attach to the opposite ends of a fire-resistant, multiple-layer steel cable reaching ground level, the system uses a roller mechanism to lower the evacuee at about 3.3 feet per second, the company says. The double harness system, designed the way a see-saw works, lowers the evacuees alternately, ensuring that an empty harness is always quickly available.

“The system is designed to correct ‘user-errors,'” even of those who are literally ‘running for their lives,’ says Barzilai, who, as a former chief of matériel R&D for Israel’s renowned anti-terror SWAT teams, knows a thing or two about panic psychology.

Pointing out the device’s milspec-rated, fail-safe design, he offers a hypothetical, but all-too-real example of a fleeing mother descending with her two children in the harness: “As she starts to go down, two others who are also trying to get out suddenly jump out and grab a hold of the cable. Even is this situation – and we’re talking about 300 to 400 kilos of weight – they will reach the ground safely,” he said.

The harness system resembles sturdy slip-on overalls, and has an additional papoose-like pouch on the back for infants or small children, keeping the child from accidentally hitting the building’s outer wall during the descent.

As an acid test of the system’s carrying capacity, the developers tripled the rated load on the descent harness, cable and moorings to “almost half a ton of weight, and it descended safely to the ground at about 1.2 meters a second,” Barzilai boasts.

Salhov, in contrast to Barzilai’s rich background in special ops and rescue, views himself as representing the “average man on the street who doesn’t know a harness from a cable, and who has never rescued anyone or been rescued.”

Salhov says this levelheaded view is an asset, allowing him an unprejudiced, “outside-the-envelope” attitude towards the system’s design and features. “So, we complement each other’s abilities.”

The system, featured recently in National Geographic’s Escape Technology TV program, has passed the rigorous American Society for Testing and Materials Standards (ASTM) evaluations, as well as similar requirements in Germany, Russia and Israel.

Still in development is a version securely moored to solid ceiling crossbeams, which automatically deploys from above a suspended acoustic ceiling.

Since receiving the coveted seals of approval, Salhov says the first SAFEXIT shipment is scheduled to be installed at locations in the US in coming months.

“We received very positive reactions to the concept,” he says, citing a “very well received” demonstration before Pennsylvania state officials, about three months ago. The state government agreed to install a demonstration system in its offices in Philadelphia.

“They’re very, very interested in the subject of evacuating tall buildings,” Salhov explains, adding that they hope to receive an order, based on their impressions of the demo model. Winner Global Defense, of Sharon, Mass. is the exclusive distributor in North America.

Recalling the tragic scenes of office workers trapped behind the windows of the stricken World Trade Center towers, Barzilai concludes, “Although, there’s nothing that could have been done to save those on the floors that sustained a direct impact [of the passenger jets], we could have saved – simply and without a problem – 98 percent of the people on the lower floors who weren’t hurt, but couldn’t escape.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director