David Weber is trapped.
It’s a Wednesday evening, and the avid cyclist stops at Performance Bicycle in Santa Monica to pick up a helmet he ordered online. He parks in the building’s underground lot and takes the elevator up to the store level — no problem.
Weber enters the shop, retrieves the helmet and heads back to his car. Then, as he’s riding back down to the parking garage, his errand hits a snag.
The elevator stalls.
Trying not to panic, Weber darts to the control panel. He pushes an alarm button — it produces a barely audible ringing noise. No response. He tries the phone button — nothing happens.
Meanwhile, the bike shop is closing soon. And Weber remembers that the subterranean lot was empty when he arrived, so now he’s convinced no one else will be trying to use the elevator until the next day.
“If I didn’t have my cellphone,” he says, “I probably would have been in there overnight.”
Feeling lucky to have reception, Weber calls the store and tells an employee he’s stuck in the building’s elevator. When he’s put on hold, he waits. After a couple minutes, though, he grows impatient and hangs up.
He dials 911.
To the rescue
Elevator rescues can make for distressing situations involving businesses and property owners as well as emergency responders who don’t have jurisdiction over safety and state regulators who are rarely on-site, not to mention frightened passengers.
But Weber, who was alone in the elevator, has plenty of company. The Santa Monica Fire Department regularly handles elevator rescues, responding to 209 such incidents in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2013, and taking 214 of these calls in the fiscal year that wrapped up June 30.
That means, on average, someone reports being stuck in a Santa Monica elevator almost two out of every three days.
“It’s a fairly common call,” Battalion Chief Mike McElvaney said.
The causes of elevator failure are wide-ranging but often involve mechanical issues, which vary depending on the type of device. Despite the city’s recent surge in development, rescue calls are often made from old buildings or conveyances.
The fire department’s truck company is prepared for many different scenarios. Sometimes it’s as simple as shutting off the motor and starting it up again, McElvaney said. Other times, crews manually lower the car and release the doors with specialized tools.
“Usually they’re pretty good,” he said, “and typically they release the people in 10 or 15 minutes. Once in a while, it takes half an hour. … If we have someone with a medical emergency in an elevator, we could break the doors, but we rarely have to do that. We try not to do that.”
As it does for all service calls, the local fire department reports every elevator incident to state officials. However, it does not have jurisdiction over elevator licensing or safety – those duties fall on a unit of the state’s Department of Industrial Relations in the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
In California, only state safety engineers and certified conveyance inspectors are authorized to evaluate elevators. The inspections are typically done on an annual basis.
State officials can shut down an elevator if a hazard or illegal device is found during inspection or if a compliance order isn’t followed. Not paying an invoice can also cause an elevator to be taken out of service.
“Usually we’ll release the car, get the people out and then disable it, shut it off and tell the owner or responsible party they have to fix it,” McElvaney said. “That’s the end of our involvement.”
Weber’s 911 call is answered.
A dispatcher notes the address, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., and relays the pertinent information to the fire department, which logs the time as 7:19 p.m.
The dispatcher then tells Weber to wait and says emergency responders will be there shortly.
While he’s waiting for them to arrive, Weber calls the bike shop again.
He’s told that the same elevator stalled a few weeks earlier, which doesn’t exactly appease him.
“If there’s a prior issue,” he says, “they should know.”
At 7:25 p.m., firefighters arrive. They turn off the elevator and release the doors manually. Weber exits the car, relieved after a 20-minute ordeal. The scene is considered cleared at 7:42 p.m.
“I left feeling, ‘Gosh, this could happen to someone else,'” he says.
Weber shares his story with Ryan Demirdjian, a Santa Monica fire inspector.
Demirdjian visits the building, which opened as a theater in 1931 and whose facade was deemed a city landmark in 2008. It’s owned by Office Max USA and is the relatively new home of Performance Bicycle, which was previously located at the corner of 5th Street and Broadway.
Demirdjian finds that the elevator is not in service and awaiting maintenance.
“I just went to make sure that we weren’t going to have someone else stuck in there,” he says.
On Thursday afternoon, more than three weeks after Weber’s call, a technician is seen working on the elevator. A sign is taped to its door: “Out of Order.”
“While the elevator maintenance is the responsibility of the building’s owner, Office Max USA, we take customer safety extremely seriously,” says Nick Valente, a spokesman for Performance Bicycle. “The incident was reported to Office Max USA and they are in the process of making the necessary repairs.”
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, email@example.com or on Twitter.