Elevator Economics

Keeping Spokane’s elevators safe is a job for more than one man

As we stand on top of an elevator car in this dark hoist-way, three other cars whiz by us at 700 feet per minute. Their approach is given no warning in this man-made, vertical cave, and the only sign that they’ve come and gone is a cool breeze or, if we happen to be staring in the right direction, a glimpse.

I’m flying through the bowels of the Paulsen Building with George Stumph, Spokane’s only elevator inspector, and Dan Garrett, a mechanic for ThyssenKrupp, an elevator company. Our descent down this dark shaft started on the 16th floor and my head is swimming.

Stumph, pronounced “stump,” is pointing out various signs that Paulsen’s elevators are a bit outdated. Light peeks out from the shaft’s walls here and there — Stumph explains that there’s only drywall in some places dividing office space from the elevators’ paths. There’s an old radiator hanging in between cars — originally meant to warm the cars, but now a fire hazard.

“You can see,” Stumph says. “When you get into the bowels of the building, it’s not as beautiful as it might be.”

Currently, there are more than 1,100 conveyances in Spokane, 90 percent of which are elevators. (Escalators and dumbwaiters also fit the bill.) As the city’s only elevator inspector, Stumph has to check each elevator annually, but in reality he can only get to about 500 every year.

In less than three weeks, Stumph’s boss, Joe Wizner, is going to ask the City Council to up inspection fees from $85 to $177, so Stumph can get some help and elevator inspections can be done when they’re supposed to. Wizner’s lining

up support for the fee increase from various stakeholders — elevator companies, the Building Owners and Managers Association — so the council will have an easier time swallowing the increase during this economically troubling time.

“The number of elevators has increased, complexity’s increased, the code is always evolving,” Wizner says. On top of that, the inspection fee structure hasn’t changed “since, basically, forever.”

With a whirr, Stumph fires up the elevator in the old YWCA building on Broadway and sends it up a floor. From his toolkit, he pulls out what looks like a tiny crucifix and unlocks the hoistway doors, prying them open. We peer in. The jack cylinder is still gleaming with machine oil despite the elevator being out of commission for the last year.

Looking down, Stumph points out problems: violations in fire standards, inadequate lighting, beams supporting the building cut away to make room for the elevator.

“I see $25,000 in work,” Stumph say. “Easily.” Back in his truck, Stumph says elevators and escalators move more people every day than any other form of transportation: cars, planes, whatever. It’s hard to prove — nobody really keeps stats, not even the National Elevator Industry — but believable. There are 30 million elevator trips a day in New York City’s 58,000 elevators alone. And as the world urbanizes, the number of elevators (and trips on them) is likely to increase.

It’s surprising, then, to think about how safe elevators are. Every year, an average of 26 people die in elevator incidents in the U.S. Every day, more than 100 people die in car accidents.

Those who die in elevator mishaps are usually trying to fix them, as was David Wright, the area’s most recent elevator fatality.

A maintenance worker at Whitworth University, Wright was attempting to fix the lift in the north wing of the science facility on campus in March 2000. The power was still on when he got the elevator doors back on track, sending the elevator up with him on top of it. Elevators are required to have 48 inches of clearance when the car reaches its uppermost level. This car had just 16.5 inches. Wright was crushed.

Violations in safety codes such as this are what Stumph looks for. We’re on Third Avenue when Stumph points to the downtown skyline.

“The majority of those buildings have elevators,” he says. “The majority are old and tired.” He describes the complexity involved in keeping an elevator in safe, workable condition: “The tolerances are minute. The mechanisms are many.”

On the second-highest floor of the Paulsen Building, decades-old Otis motors pull and lower the cars down hundreds of feet. These are traction elevators, the ones connected by cables. This variety has six hoist cables, each one capable of holding the car in case the others snap. And even if they all snap, a seventh line called the governor cable could maintain safety.

It’s an older iteration of what Stumph calls “multiple, redundant safety systems.”

Across the state, scores of inspectors check for these safety systems. Like Spokane, Seattle does its own inspections with a team of about a dozen inspectors. Everywhere else, the state Department of Labor and Industries does the rest. Its 21 inspectors check out 21,000 conveyances, 85 percent of which are elevators.

But here in the Paulsen, Stumph’s the only one checking. In the machine room, the four walls are all windowed, giving one of the best views of the city. Braids of wires the size of a fire hose spill from the floor. We’re surrounded by clicking and popping, noises coming from eight-foot walls of 1960s-era computer processors — the decision makers, the brains of the elevators. Little electrical impulses spark up and down these brains, telling the cars what floor to go to, when to open and close their doors, when to decelerate and accelerate.

While keeping these machines running, two mechanics from ThyssenKrupp (“TEE-suhn KRUP”) show Stumph the new leveling system they’ve installed. The cars used to open the doors when they were still up to six inches off, creating a step up or down for their passengers. Not anymore.

Stumph says the Otis motors are better than any they’re making today and could last for another 50 years. Still, he’d like an upgrade for much of the other equipment, to keep them in line with modern safety standards. It’s a situation he sees a lot: layers of equipment in varying states of age and upkeep. Considering all that, it takes a certain kind of person to keep elevators running, and safe.

“You have to be an electrician, a welder, a plumber, a carpenter, a sheet metal guy,” Stumph says. “That’s why there’s such pride here in what we do.”

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About The Author

Nicholas Deshais

Nicholas Deshais is a former news editor and staff writer for The Inlander. He has reported on city, county and state politics, as well as medical marijuana, transportation and development. In May 2012, he was named as a finalist for the prestigious Livingston Award for an Inlander story about (now former) Assistant...