OPINION: The consequences of an unreliable lift service

Out Of OrderPhoto by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

Steve Webb, senior lift consultant at Hemsworth Associates.

I have been in the lift industry since the 1970’s and during my career worked in all facets of the lift industry, from installation, through modernisation, repairs callout and emergency breakdown service. I have recently completed my degree course at Northampton University on the science of lift engineering, and I am the owner of Hemsworth Associates lift consultancy.

The way we are living is changing. More and more people are choosing apartments – as an affordable first home, as a way for older people to stay in their local area when they downsize, or simply because they prefer it.

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The UK has experienced successive years of record apartment approvals and development. There are now more apartments being approved for development in major UK cities than houses in growth areas.

There are consequences when the lift is problematic, and these bring added pressures to bear on busy property managers. The outcome could have a direct financial impact as with regards Fire Brigade charges; the cost may also be not as apparent. When a building has a bad reputation for lift reliability then letting of apartments becomes potentially more difficult. Finally, there are moral consequences that hit home when you hear of some of the events that a problematic lift has placed on residents in apartment blocks.

London Firefighters attend 13 non-urgent lift call outs every single day.

That’s nearly 5,000 incidents a year in the capital alone. And this only counts the calls when a person is shut in a lift but not in any immediate physical or medical danger.

A London Fire Brigade third officer, said: “If there is a genuine emergency we will be there but on many occasions, if you are shut in a lift it’s an inconvenience, not an emergency situation. It’s the responsibility of building owners to maintain their lifts and ensure they use a lift engineer call out service if the lift breaks down.”

We are always looking to work with building owners to advise on lift safety. Preventing people getting shut in lifts is in everyone’s interest, and we’re calling on all building operators to ensure their lifts are regularly maintained and that their staff are properly trained to release people who get shut in them.

Charges

It should be noted that the Brigade started making a charge for non-emergency call-outs in 2009 – which don’t even cover costs. While lift releases have decreased since the charges were introduced, the amount of call outs is still very high, and disgracefully, there are building owners who have yet to pay their ‘shut in lifts’ bill. City-wide the Brigade is owed nearly £250,000 in unpaid charges.

Under existing rules, the Brigade can recover £290 plus VAT from owners of buildings and lifts for attending non-emergency lift call outs. The charge is applied from the third occasion firefighters are called to the same building. The cost recovery scheme was implemented to incentivise building owners to tackle the problem – but it is clearly proving ineffective.

A reliable lift service is crucial

Hemsworth Associates have worked with a number of lift owners around the country, and have taken significant steps to improve the maintenance of their lifts and to provide an improved lift service and effective engineer call out arrangements. Where outstanding improvements have been made, many Fire Brigades have introduced exemptions from the charging process.

The rise in apartment living does create a more diverse array of tenants living on upper floors than we experienced in the 1960’s and 70’s when it was very much that families with young children and the elderly were predominantly housed on lower levels of an apartment block.

If residents are going to have the freedom to decide which floors they want to live on, then a reliable lift service is crucial. Why should you have to forfeit your lovely apartment with stunning views just because the lift service is unreliable and you are now a virtual prisoner in your home?

During my career as a lift engineer and now as a lift consultant I have experienced some truly upsetting scenarios of lift failure that have impacted people’s lives

In one instance, I was called to attend a lift that had been isolated for eight weeks by the lift contractor pending the acceptance of a quotation. On investigation, I concluded that the lift had been wrongly diagnosed and the proposed works would not have corrected the lift problem. The heartbreak of this scenario is that the elderly couple that lived on the second floor (top floor) had not used the lift for over six months. The three months before the lift was withdrawn from service it had been an unreliable service, they were therefore scared of being trapped. This is bad enough. However, it gets worse when you learn that the husband was extremely ill and needed carers on a daily basis and was now housebound without the lift being in service. After much investigation and negotiation, we oversaw the required works and reinstated the lift back into service. This was achieved in a relatively short period of time. However, unfortunately, the gentleman never did get the opportunity to leave his apartment prior to the works being completed and passed away. A very distressing situation for his wife and family.

I recently attended a lift where an 85-year-old lady living on the 3rd floor of an apartment block, which she had lived in for 40 years had not been outside throughout the recent summer months because the lift had been isolated pending the installation of a new safety system. Due to mobility problems, she was unable to manage the stairs. Many of her friends had not visited because they also could not manage the stairs. Following our involvement, the lift was reinstated within 4 days. The lady although grateful was rightly annoyed, frustrated and upset that she had missed opportunities to enjoy the summer.

Joanne Busby is a senior property manager at Urbanlife Property Management and has similar experiences. She said: “Lifts were previously used in high end apartment blocks, however they are now common place and can have high levels of use. Out of service lifts can cause real problems for the elderly, those with disabilities and young families and property managers need to understand and appreciate these from the residents’ perspective. I have experienced lifts out of service for up to three months while awaiting parts to arrive from Germany.”

To stop those residents feeling trapped or the anxiety of whether they would be trapped is a problem I face at estates with old lifts and being a little claustrophobic myself, I can fully sympathise. I’ve never had to rely on the local fire service to attend for trapped residents as I make a point of having a maintenance contract with out of hours call outs.

National statistics indicate that to accommodate the targets set for building new homes in the UK we are going to have to embrace apartment living. It also will mean that the full social spectrum will now be accommodated in medium to high-rise apartment blocks. To deliver the quality of life, allow the freedom and provide support to the less able-bodied, the lift service must be raised as more of a critical service within the building. This should be preferably at building design stage. However, in existing buildings where the lift is already installed, then correct maintenance, structured repairs and appropriate modernisation programmes must be a major part of the smooth running of any apartment building.

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