It’s 1:40 p.m., and you enter the library elevator to go up. The elevator ascends to the main floor, but its doors open partially and need to be pried open by another student to fully open. You don’t give it much thought. Two more people enter the elevator, yet the doors don’t close, prompting them to exit. Finally, the doors close and you are alone. The elevator tries to ascend again but starts to shake. Worried, you start pressing other floors hoping to stop the shaking. The shaking does stop, but you are now stuck in the library elevator alone.
You press the help button hoping for an answer, but there is none. Two minutes go by. Then five. Five minutes become ten. Ten minutes stretch into fifteen. You start to google what you should do, trying to get the doors to open three times. You try the help button again and wait for another few minutes, but nothing happens, and no one answers.
It is now 2:00 p.m. You decide to call the campus Facilities Management and Planning department and explain to them your situation. They say they will send campus police and security. After 25 minutes, the police arrive and tell you that a mechanic is on his way in about half an hour. You hope you’ll be out of there before your three o’clock class.
3:00 p.m. comes and the mechanic has not arrived. Campus police and security tell you that the firefighters are coming to get you out. They arrive and get to work trying to free you. The hour ticks by, and you realize you won’t be making it to class after all.
After an hour and a half, campus police inform you that the firefighters weren’t able to get the doors open and that they are calling in another mechanic, but it will take them half an hour to get to campus.
The mechanic starts to work at 5:00 p.m., and you call your parents to tell them not to expect you home too early.
At 5:26 p.m., you are freed. The police question you and then let you go. You’ve spent over 4 hours stuck in that elevator and missed your classes for the day.
The above story is not a thought experiment or a fictional anecdote, but a real experience that happened to a friend of mine a week ago. The experience was anxiety-inducing, frustrating, and even a little bit traumatic. Yet he was lucky. He wasn’t claustrophobic and did not have any urgent events he needed to go to. And he had cell service and Wi-Fi—which if he hadn’t been able to get would have meant waiting for who knows how long until someone at the library noticed his predicament. He was also lucky that he got stuck in the afternoon and not in the late evening, and that the weather didn’t get in the way of his rescue.
Unfortunately, these kinds of incidents are not uncommon at UTM. This past October, The Medium wrote an article about the CCT elevators and spoke to an ICCIT professor about his experiences being trapped in those elevators.
The first incident had the professor and two other students trapped in the elevator for an hour and a half until they were eventually freed by an elevator mechanic, while the second occasion had the professor go through a truly torturous and frightening event that involved the elevator falling down some distance and activating a loud alarm that couldn’t be turned off once it had stopped. The professor was stuck in that elevator for two and a half hours until he was freed and able to escape that blaring siren.
Of course, this issue affects everyone on campus, but it directly disadvantages our disabled community at UTM. In fact, two opinion pieces published in The Medium last semester focused on the challenges that students with disabilities face when it comes to accessibility on campus. Both spoke about the barrier that a broken elevator poses to their accessibility and independence. Now add on top of that the risk of getting stuck in an elevator and this issue becomes an urgent safety concern.
One might wonder what the university is doing about the elevator problem, and the answer is not enough. There are two issues with the current elevator situation. The first is the procedure for dealing with a failed elevator, and the second is the lack of proper maintenance the elevators receive in general.
When an elevator fails, only a certified mechanic from the contracted maintenance company, OTIS, can effectively solve the problem and release people if they are trapped. If there is an emergency—or if the mechanic doesn’t show up—the fire department is allowed to assist, though they may not always be able to free the people trapped.
On average, it takes between 45 minutes to an hour for a certified mechanic to attend to an elevator entrapment, but that range doesn’t take into account the time it takes for the mechanic to arrive on the scene, which is heavily influenced by factors such as time of day, traffic, and the weather, as well as the time it takes to get a hold of the mechanic. This means that should you find yourself trapped in an elevator; the period of your entrapment depends heavily on luck.
Needless to say, this system is not effective nor safe. Response time should not be so volatile and lengthy. When an entrapment does occur, the procedure to free people should be quick and expectable. This means it should not hinge so heavily on a single person’s involvement. There need to be other ways for emergency services to access the elevator’s control panel and work to free people safely. Or the university should have a mechanic on staff with the necessary knowledge of how to free people.
On the other hand, elevator malfunctions are due to a lack of proper maintenance, and OTIS only inspects and performs maintenance on the elevators quarterly and annually.
Yet it is the Facilities Management and Planning (FM&P) department on campus that tracks complaints and notifications for repairs. So far, the FM&P stated last October that it is reaching out to elevator consultants for full condition and performance assessments of the elevators on campus. They also said they are undertaking several projects to try and modernize the elevators on campus over the next five years.
Except while these projects are necessary, they do not directly remedy the issue of elevator failures because frequent use necessitates frequent maintenance, not just some new parts.
In the end, the elevators on campus are always going to breakdown due to high volume traffic, it’s just that the frequency at which they do so, and the impact of such malfunctions, needs to be mitigated to ensure the safety of everyone on campus. For now, I’ll be taking the stairs.