Monday, March 13, 2006 | On one day alone last October, the San Diego Fire Department freed six people from five different stranded elevators – responding to calls from buildings from Fashion Valley to downtown.
A week later, they made four rescues in a day. Two happened within three hours of each other in the same building – the downtown Navy Supply Depot. That building had 12 rescues last year, the most in San Diego.
Firefighters have pulled people from elevators at downtown stores, at the airport, at an elementary school. And they’re making more rescues each year, seeing steady increases the last four years.
The state Department of Industrial Relations is supposed to check up yearly to make sure elevators are operating safely.
But inspectors aren’t checking up promptly. Expired inspection certificates can be found in 1,000 of the 9,000 elevators and escalators in San Diego and Imperial counties, according to the department. It’s even worse statewide, where 20,000 out of 90,000 are overdue for inspection. The phenomenon is ubiquitous. Expired inspection certificates can be found at the commuter terminal at Lindbergh Field and at offices throughout downtown.
An expired certificate is even posted in the elevator leading to offices of the San Diego Fire Department – the very agency responsible for elevator rescues.
“There’s no excuse for that,” said John Quackenbush, an elevator-safety consultant who has testified about industry issues before California’s Legislature. “They ought to have those inspectors working overtime.”
A Voice of San Diego look at elevator safety revealed a dysfunctional elevator-safety oversight system that doesn’t record the number of elevator accidents or deaths in the state and has allowed more than 20 percent of the states’ elevators to fall out of the mandated inspection cycle. The state can’t say how many people have died in elevator accidents – or how many mishaps have occurred. The state doesn’t track where they occur. When an accident does happen, no one is required to notify the state, which is responsible for elevator-safety oversight.
Law enforcement and fire officials sometimes alert the state about accidents. Beyond that, it’s the discretion of the elevator’s owner – the party with the most liability. Owners are responsible for maintenance and can face civil penalties if their elevators don’t meet standards.
With inspections lagging, the San Diego Fire Department’s calls for rescue have skyrocketed. In the last four years, elevator rescues jumped 69 percent. Since 2002, city firefighters have responded to more than 1,000 calls for people trapped in elevators – 333 last year alone.
Elevator industry safety experts say the two trends are directly related – and create a recipe for disaster.
“If 911 calls are going up, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a fatality,” Quackenbush said.
Elevators accidents can be deadly. Eight children were killed in elevator accidents between 2000 and 2004 in the United States, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Twenty-three adults died in that time, and 45,000 people were injured.
Another estimate by the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights says 30 people die each year as a result of elevator-related injuries. About half are elevator maintenance personnel. According to the study, elevator installation and repair is the fifth-riskiest trade in the construction industry.
How many deaths and injuries happen in California? The state doesn’t know – it doesn’t track that.
The San Diego Fire Department doesn’t either, but spokesman Maurice Luque said he doesn’t believe any major accidents or injuries have occurred here. The fire department 911 responses do pinpoint which city elevators have been problematic.
City Hall is near the top of the list.
In the last four years, firefighters have been called to City Hall 18 times to rescue people from elevators. Only one other building has seen more rescues, and it’s also filled with city offices: the Development Services Department on First Avenue. Firefighters have responded there 36 times since 2002. The official responsible for overseeing the city’s elevator maintenance contract did not return calls for comment.
Although city elevators have current inspections, chronic problems like City Hall’s are often a sign that “there’s something creating it that hasn’t been addressed,” said Dotty Stanlaske, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities International, which certifies elevator inspectors.
“It could be lack of maintenance,” she said. “It could be that they just didn’t have someone familiar enough with that equipment to know what’s going on. With older equipment it’s probably a maintenance issue – and that comes back to the building owner.”
Checking up on the building owner is the state’s responsibility – and one it has fallen behind on. So where does the blame for lagging inspections lie? Dean Fryer, spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations, the agency that oversees statewide elevator inspections, initially pointed the finger at California’s continuing fiscal crunch.
“We have had serious problems with staffing because of budgetary issues in the recent past,” Fryer said, “which we’ve been moving to correct.”
But a Voice review of the elevator safety budget shows steady funding increases. One source of elevator safety funding almost doubled between 2000 and 2006.
Fryer later admitted he’d initially been mistaken and instead pointed to elevator inspectors’ pay, typically between $40,000 and $50,000. Inspectors working for private companies can earn upwards of $70,000, Fryer said.
Part of the problem also lies in the workload, Fryer said. In an average year, an inspector covers about 1,000 elevators. But seven inspectors in the San Diego office are responsible for 9,000 elevators and escalators in San Diego and Imperial counties. The local office has no vacancies; eight positions are open statewide.
When an elevator is inspected, Fryer said it’s an exhaustive three- to four-hour process. Inspectors tick off a long list. Do the lights work? The buttons? The phone? Does it land properly on each floor? Does the door close too fast? Does the door respond if something is caught in it?
“They’re hidden issues,” Stanlaske said. “You’ll never know there’s a problem with them – unless it turns up on an inspection or an accident is created by one of those things.”
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