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Going Up?

When the blue and red lights start flashing, as you pull over to the side of the road, who hasn't thought at some point of quotas? Doesn't it just seem that, at certain times, traffic violations start sprouting up without explanation? Conspiracy theorists say that officers are given quotas to reach every month, perhaps to justify their jobs. Don Wilson, president of Blue Woods Management, is feeling the same way about elevator inspections. Violations, he claims, have been on the rise for years. And he's not the only one saying that. Private sector inspectors report the numbers have gone up dramatically. What's going on?

There are a number of answers, but the beginning of the dilemma can be traced back to 1998. That year, 26 former elevator inspectors were convicted of extorting cash payments in connection with their official duties in the elevator division of the Department of Buildings (DOB). (The total number of inspectors went down from 58 to 16, but has since climbed to over 30.)

One inspector, Alfonzo Masciandaro, took cash payments from elevator company owners and employees for more than 15 years. The payments were provided so that Masciandaro would expedite the scheduling and appearance of an inspector at final inspections of repair and new construction work, and expedite the approvals of repairs and installation work. In some cases, Masciandaro failed entirely to perform the required inspections, even after receiving bribes.

While no evidence was uncovered of payments made to overlook safety hazards, the end result of the arrests was a great shortage in the department. To handle this, the DOB supplemented its workforce by outsourcing inspections to three companies: Landmark Elevator Consultants, National Elevator Inspection Service, and EIC Inspection Agency Corporation. These companies would take up the slack, performing more than 500 inspections per week. Compared to the 16,944 inspections completed in fiscal year 1997, the combined efforts of the three companies and the DOB netted 37,963 inspections from July to December 1999. And more inspections, naturally, mean more violations.

That logic follows, but there may be another factor, as well. Basically, elevator checkups can be broken down into three categories: direct DOB inspection, outsourced inspections, and private inspections. (By law, building owners are required to have an annual visual inspection performed by a private certified elevator inspection agency. In addition, every two years there must be a "no-load" safety test and every five years, a "full-load" safety test, both done by private companies. The city inspects elevators five times every two years.)

The first category is the outsourced inspection. The companies that do these focus primarily on the city's periodic inspections, looking at maintenance, the overall condition of the elevator, and operating condition. (Does the elevator work? Do the lights work? Does the cab work?) They have the authority to write only private violations. They are overseen directly by the DOB and cannot write fines. However, the violations that they do write must still be cleared up. According to some, because these companies are being hired on an outsource basis, there is incentive for them to tend toward the cautious side. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the result, says one private inspector, is a lot of "Mickey Mouse violations."

The bigger problem, notes John Hoffman, branch sales manager for Thyssenkrupp Elevator, is that it can take a long time to resolve those small violations. Since most are relatively minor, it can be frustrating when a certificate of occupancy is held up because of a small problem. Hence, the arrests of city inspectors that received payments to speed things up.

Ilyse Fink, the communications director for the DOB, says the number of violations has gone up in recent years, "but not by huge numbers." She adds that the DOB is always actively pursuing ways to speed up and improve the system.

The other two types of inspections are more extensive. When the outsourced companies note serious problems, a DOB inspection is needed for a fine to be levied. DOB inspectors write Environmental Control Violations. Direct DOB inspection is also needed when complaints are filed, when there is a new installation, or when an elevator that had been taken out of service is being put online again. Periodic inspections can take around 40 minutes, notes Fink, while inspection of a new elevator can take hours.

The last level, the private inspection, is the most intensive. A private elevator inspector needs a minimum of 10 years experience in the supervision of the assembly, installation, maintenance, repair, design, or inspection of elevators and also has to pass the city's exam, which some have described as "nearly impossible." Indeed, 70 applicants took a test recently and only two passed. This has caused another commotion in the industry, namely that some elevator companies have found it hard to replace their own inspectors.

In addition, notes George Johnson, president of Triboro Technologies, an elevator company, the last 10 years have seen a rise in the number of elevator companies, further putting pressure on getting good help. "We had an ad online for a month and got no response," he says. "There's a real strain on the system because of the lack of qualified help."

"Years ago, if you had 10 to 15 years experience in the field you qualified, but now [with today's test] they've gone way past normalcy. It's near impossible," says George Deering, director of inspections for Ver-Tech Elevator Company, a man with 45 years' experience in the field. According to some of the private companies, the test is weeding out entirely too many, causing shortages on their own staff.

In response, Fink says: "The private inspectors should have higher standards. The people we use report to us and are overseen by us directly. I don't think there is anything wrong with mandating that private companies take this test. New York City is a unique situation with unique regulations and you need to have an understanding of these issues."

The city itself has been experiencing hiring problems, as well. To "attract a better level of prospective employee," the base salary of its inspectors has been raised from $32,389 to $37,017 — and may be increased again — but this hardly comes close to the private company salaries ranging from $50,000 to $80,000. However, considering how difficult it is to become a private inspector, the city's offer may be attractive. So the shortage continues and Fink reports that there are no plans in the immediate future to change the way the system works now.

"The whole situation is nutty," says Chip Nyborg, president of Tristate Elevator Company. Nonetheless, he adds, it seems to be working. The 54,000 elevators under DOB's jurisdiction go on more than 27 million rides daily. The typical elevator makes 500 trips per day. And the chances of actually being hurt? According to statistics in The Elevator World Vertical Transportation Industry Profile, 1 in 12 million.

So, barring a huge outcry from the public, the system is going to continue as it has been and the violations are going to continue rolling in. It's one ride that may not be going down for some time.

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