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The ups and downs of Chicago’s elevators

Submitted on Wed, 10/10/2007 – 11:52.
Story by Dan Selecman

From the Sears Tower to the constantly growing number of condos, hotels and office buildings, it’s hard to avoid using an elevator in Chicago and many do so daily.

And every day, high rise residents, workers and tourists are kept safe by just 13 people.

That is the number of inspectors employed by the city’s Bureau of Elevators. And they are responsible for the more than 27,000 elevators, moving walkways, escalators and “mechanical amusement rides” in Chicago.

Douglas Flebbe keeps busy with his share of these inspections. If you do the math, each inspector is responsible for more than 2,000 conveyances throughout the city.

Each conveyance should take about three hours to inspect, says Craig Zomchek, vice president of the Chicago Elevator Association, which is made up of elevator consultants, contractors and parts suppliers.

The three-hour per inspection estimate comes from the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities, an organization that certifies elevator inspectors, Flebbe said.

But at that rate, Chicago inspectors would have to work 17 hours a day every day of the year to complete all the necessary inspections. And that doesn’t take into account any follow-up inspections or other duties.

In reality, Zomchek said the size and complexity of a device will vary the inspection times and many residential elevators can probably be inspected satisfactorily in approximately one hour.

There are not enough inspectors, Zomchek said, even taking the shorter inspection times into account. His organization wants the city to hire six or eight more elevator inspectors.

“The problem comes with all the new construction that’s going on,” he said. “It saps manpower.”

Zomchek said the situation has yet to reach a “horrible” point, but the city needs to act now to prevent future tragedies such as the New York City delivery man who was trapped in an elevator for three days in 2005, as reported by the New York Times.

Problems already exist in some buildings. For example, in the Parc Paris apartments in Uptown. For several weeks one of the building’s two elevators was out of service and the other had occasional problems such as doors opening and closing on its own volition.

Zomchek said that shutting down an elevator is one way to avoid paying for repairs, which can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.

Flebbe said the Uptown apartment building failed not only this year’s inspection but also inspections going back several years. The inspection certificate hanging in the working elevator is from 2003 and the weight capacity listed was incorrect (although it did match the non-working elevator’s weight capacity).

Though there haven’t been any injuries, the elevators have temporarily trapped people. One resident, who did not want to be named, said he takes the stairs to his fifth floor apartment now because he was trapped in the elevators several times, once for more than an hour.

Short of legal action, Flebbe said residents could call 311, the city’s non-emergency number, to lodge a complaint. That will put it back in the 13 sets of hands that every day keep Chicago moving up and down.

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