More than half of Chicago's elevators did not receive their required inspection last year, despite a reform program launched in 2009 to reduce a massive backlog of examinations, a Tribune analysis of city records found.
Of roughly 26,000 elevators, lifts and similar equipment, the Tribune found that citywide about 65 percent did not have an inspection in the last year, as mandated by law to help ensure public safety. Outside the downtown Central Business District, about 82 percent were not inspected.
When compared with other places with similar device counts, Chicago's inspection record appears even bleaker. In Los Angeles, just 7 percent of the city's roughly 21,500 devices were not inspected in 2011. In Ohio, only 2 percent of about 32,000 devices did not receive their semiannual checks, according to the state's chief elevator inspector.
Asked about these findings, the city said it is revamping where and how city inspectors devote their time and expanding its reform program beyond the Central Business District, where building owners were required to hire private inspectors to complete the annual reviews.
The district is a swath of downtown bordered by the lake, Roosevelt Road, Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue to the west of LaSalle Street and Division Street east of LaSalle.
The privatized Annual Inspection Certification program took full effect in 2010, and the city has touted it as a success.
The compliance rate in the Central Business District is far better than elsewhere in the city, but records indicate that 1 in 4 buildings still were not checked in 2011.
In addition to the incomplete compliance, the Tribune found that the program was marred by inconsistent record-keeping and lax enforcement.
In some cases, building owners called the process cumbersome or the online registration confusing. Others did not return calls from the Tribune. And still others contended their elevators had in fact been inspected.
At the same time, noncompliant building owners did not appear to have much to fear from city regulators, according to records. The city has in many cases declined to fine building owners.
Officials can move to have building owners charged hundreds of dollars for every day they are in violation, but the Tribune found that only 17 of almost 200 relevant administrative hearings that occurred from 2010 to May 2012 resulted in fines. In addition, the city is allowed to charge scofflaw building owners for a comprehensive inspection done by the Chicago Department of Buildings, but no such follow-ups were entered in the data examined by the Tribune.
Those hard-line tactics, however, are sometimes necessary to ensure the success of public/private elevator inspection arrangements, said Dotty Stanlaske, executive director for the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities International, which certifies elevator inspectors worldwide.
"I believe in the third-party private inspection process, but it has to have some kind of regulatory process behind it," Stanlaske said. "The governing authority needs to make sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and if they don't, they need to have the muscle to penalize these folks."
The Annual Inspection Certification program was launched following a Tribune investigation in 2009 that found that 70 percent of elevators in Chicago had not been looked at in the previous year and some hadn't been looked at since 2001.
City officials said they are now working to bring all buildings into compliance.
"This includes serving notices of violation to buildings, scheduling hearings on their compliance status and, as a last resort for buildings that consistently refuse to show action toward coming into compliance, seeking fines," city officials said in a written statement.
Those measures had not been taken against the owners of 171 N. Wabash Ave. when George Davis Jr. parked his car at the Loop parking garage on Feb. 12, 2011. The garage's man lift — a platform device often used to carry valets between floors — had not had an annual checkup in nearly five years, according to city records. The owners, Consolidated Equity III LLC, had failed to register an inspection in the certification program in 2010, records show.
Davis, who had been drinking, parked his car on the fourth floor, then fell to his death when he attempted to use the man lift.