Most D.C. Elevators Lack Valid Licenses

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

More than half of the 10,000 elevators in the District are operating without valid licenses, including 26 at two D.C. government buildings, according to officials at the city agency that regulates them.

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs officials said they sent warning notices about license renewals last year to owners of buildings with elevators. Responses came back regarding 4,144 elevators, which have since been inspected.

But Darrell Donnelly, the agency official responsible for issuing elevator certifications, said in an interview that an estimated 5,300 are operating without valid licenses.

Agency officials testified Friday at a D.C. Council oversight hearing that raised new questions about elevator safety, adding to those that came to light after the Thanksgiving Day death of a woman who fell while trying to climb out of an elevator stopped between floors at a Gallery Place condominium building. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, called elevator safety "a serious issue," but city officials said they are confident most elevators are safe.

District law requires elevators to be inspected every six months. Building owners must request the inspections, which are frequently done by outside contractors because the city's two elevator inspectors can't handle all the work.

Graham said relying on third-party inspectors is problematic because the city is not able to monitor those inspectors closely.

City officials testified that elevators with minor problems can remain in service if property owners promise to repair them. Graham said he was appalled when Audrick Payne, a city elevator inspector, said elevators with "life and limb" hazards had been put back in service when owners signed letters of intent to repair the problem.

"Why are we permitting that?" Graham asked. "The road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions."

But agency director Patrick J. Canavan told Graham that letters of intent are not accepted when serious safety problems are found on elevators. He said elevator inspections are required before new buildings can be occupied.

The city has had problems with elevators in at least two government buildings.

Payne said he shut two of the 15 elevators at One Judiciary Square, 441 Fourth St. NW, in May. In January, he shut two more at the building, which houses city agencies, and cited the city's Office of Property Management with a fine of $30,000 -- the maximum $2,000 fine for each of the 15 elevators.

Payne said he did not shut all 15 elevators in the building because it would have inconvenienced large numbers of employees and visitors. The problem, he said in an interview, was that the elevators were not connected properly to smoke sensors. As a result, when fire alarms went off, the elevators did not return to the ground floor as they were supposed to but stopped at other floors.

Peter May, an official with the Office of Property Management, which is responsible for building maintenance, said he has not received any notice of a fine. He said the elevators have been repaired and are awaiting reinspection by city officials. "The elevators are safe," he said. "We wouldn't operate them if they weren't safe."

In an interview, Payne also said 11 elevators at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, which houses the police department headquarters and the Department of Motor Vehicles, have not been inspected since 1996. Payne said he issued a violation notice in May 2003 that said the elevators needed to be inspected but that they still have not been.

"If the elevator hasn't been inspected and it's in operation, how does the riding public know it's safe?" Payne asked. "It's dangerous until it's inspected and approved."

In the past five years, two fatal elevator accidents have occurred in the city, both as people tried to escape elevators that had stopped between floors, said Linda Argo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But Argo said people should not be overly alarmed about elevator safety.

"We're confident that the elevators in the District of Columbia are safe," Argo said. "People don't need to be afraid to step on an elevator. What people should focus on are the safety provisions while on an elevator."

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