May 7, 2009
There's a common saying around the downtown offices of Aileron Communications: Don't get on an elevator unless you've used the bathroom and have a cell phone.
"All of my employees have been stuck in the elevator before in this building, once for about 4 hours," said President Dave Lundy, who's also acting director of the Better Government Association, a watchdog agency.
It's not bad advice for the rest of the city to live by either. Almost 70 percent of the city's elevators weren't inspected in the past year, despite laws that require annual inspections. Some city elevators have not been looked at since 2001.
Perhaps of greater concern is that after an elevator fails an inspection, the city doesn't have a record of whether it was brought back up to code, according to the latest data obtained by the Tribune.
A glance at the elevator inspection sheet in the Pittsfield Building, 55 E. Washington St., where Lundy's firm is located, says the last time city inspectors took a gander was 2005. But city records show the elevators actually failed an inspection in 2006. And yet the elevators continue to operate.
"The last thing the city knows is that the elevators failed inspection in 2006, and no one has been back to check on it," said Lundy. "Do we see a problem here?"
Experts say it's long been known that the city isn't coming close to meeting inspection targets and blame the problem on short staffing. The city has 10 inspectors for an estimated 20,000 elevators, lifts and similar equipment. A common ratio is 550 elevators per inspector, experts say.
"With [that number] of guys it's physically impossible to do annual inspections on all the elevators, no matter how hard they work," said Dick Gregory, an elevator consultant with Vertex Corp. in Roselle. "So who's minding the store?"
As it turns out, no one. Chicago's elevators do not fall under the Illinois Elevator Safety and Regulation Act. The law exempts any municipality with a population greater than 500,000. So while all other cities are held accountable by Springfield, Chicago is accountable only to itself.
The city is aware of the backlog problem.
"Given the recent building boom and the addition of hundreds of new buildings with new systems, the number of needed inspections -- both new inspections and annual inspections -- has increased substantially," the city said in an e-mail response. "This has dramatically impacted the bureau's ability to complete annual inspections."
Also, a number of buildings don't have a last date of inspection and others list no results, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"There is no doubt that we need to keep better records," said Buildings Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey.
The city is working to implement a system allowing outside specialists with nationally recognized credentials to inspect elevators in lieu of city inspectors. The department says this policy has gone into effect for one building in the city.
Under the new guideline, city-employed inspectors would only have to examine buildings every three years. But through the use of private inspectors and other policy changes, city officials say that they expect every elevator could be looked at annually.
The city says it has inspected every elevator for which it received a 311 call and notes there are few serious elevator accidents. That's largely due to the fact that many buildings police themselves to avoid liability if someone were to be injured. Larger buildings, in the Loop especially, tend to have reputable maintenance crews working on their elevators consistently, experts say.
Upon hearing how many elevators weren't inspected in the past year, Craig Zomchek, business manager at Colley Elevator, said: "Holy crap!"
Zomchek said that while the majority of building owners and maintenance companies are scrupulous, "there is the potential for irresponsible building owners and elevator workers to put the public at risk."
In fact, he's seen it firsthand. "I have walked into buildings where I couldn't believe what was going on," he said. "And so I just walked out."
New York City has about three times as many elevators as Chicago and about 40 inspectors on staff. To keep up with annual inspections, the city contracts out work to private companies certified through the building department.
That's one practice Chicago should expand on, experts suggest. Another is for Chicago to increase fees for larger buildings and use the money to hire more inspectors.
The increased fees would reflect the time it takes to inspect certain buildings, suggested Gregory. Currently, the fees range from $105 for a building under 10 floors to $155 for a building over 30 floors, according to the city building code, published online by American Legal Publishing.
Gregory said, "The fees are way too low."
The city said it has no plans to raise fees or hire inspectors.
The inspection backlog caught the eye of Loyola University Chicago student LeeAnn Maton while doing research for a journalism class project. Maton, 21, began searching elevator certificates on Loyola's campus, trying to determine how many were out of date.
"I went to a lot of Loyola buildings," she said. "Often they didn't have certificates on the elevators, and others were out of date."
Maton said she never heard back from the city about the dated certificates, but the fact so few elevators are inspected on an annual basis troubled her.
Ultimately, the best and worst thing about the backlog is that no serious elevator-related injuries have been reported recently. Some skeptics think it could take a severe injury before the city hires the number of inspectors required to do annual, on-site inspections.
"Politicians react usually after the horse is out of the barn," said Lundy. "Is it really so wrong to ask them to try and keep the horse in the barn?"
Tribune reporter Darnell Little contributed to this report.