As the City Grows Vertically, Here's Why Elevator Service is More Important than Ever
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As the City Grows Vertically, Here’s Why Elevator Service is More Important than Ever

It might not look like it, but working elevators are a health and accessibility issue.

Photo by Paul Flynn from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Paul Flynn from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When Susan Chan moved in Aura last summer, she wasn’t expecting to spend five to 10 minutes waiting for the elevator when she arrived at her building. The 78-storey condo at College Park, which was completed in 2014, already has a history of elevator malfunctions. One elevator was down for several months this past year, which, according to Chan, made going up during rush hour hellish.

The problem got even worse a few weeks ago when a rainstorm hit Toronto and all of the elevators in the building stopped working because of flooding. Chan, who transferred from McGill University to the University of Toronto to study kinesiology, says that all the elevators were out for at least a day, and three were still down in the days following the storm.

But elevator malfunctions in buildings are more than just an inconvenience for the residents. They pose a serious risk to people’s wellbeing.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in January has shown that residents who live over the twenty-fifth floor in a high rise building have no chance of survival should they have a cardiac arrest, simply because paramedics would not reach them in time.

Ian Drennan, the lead writer of the article, is a researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital and has worked as a paramedic in York Region for eight years. He says that while York doesn’t have as many condos as Toronto, it’s still an unavoidable problem.

Paramedic response times are measured from the time the 911 call is placed to the time the team arrives on the scene. But in the case of high rise buildings, the scene can stretch up to 80 floors into the sky, and getting there takes valuable time.

“The elevator is either in use, somewhere else, or takes forever coming down,” says Drennan. “Waiting for an elevator can easily take thirty seconds. And there’s only so many stairs I can run up.”

As most of us know, running up several flights of stairs can leave you feeling winded and dizzy, and it’s even worse for paramedics, who have to carry a lot of equipment on their backs. Lucky for Drennan, the most he’s ever climbed on the job is four or five flights.

“But you also have to somehow bring the patient down with all the equipment,” he says.

The problems don’t stop there. Between 2006 and 2011, there was a 13 per cent increase in Toronto’s population living in high rises, and today 40 per cent of homeowners over the age of 65 live in high rises. With so many people in high rises reliant on elevators, having them malfunction could have serious and even life-threatening results for residents.

Photo by Fryderyk Supinski from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Fryderyk Supinski from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Every minute that passes without defibrillation from the onset of a cardiac arrest reduces the victim’s chance of survival by seven to 10 per cent. Researchers found that reaching a person who lives over the third floor of a high rise building takes an extra five minutes, on average, from the time of arrival at the building. That could reduce a victim’s chance of survival by nearly 50 per cent. Of the 30 cases that involved people living over the twenty-fifth floor in the study, none of the individuals survived. Choosing to live in a high rise building shouldn’t involve risking your life.

An article published in Medical News Today in January 2016 looked at some aspects of high rise living that delayed paramedics. For example, 18.6 per cent of delays were due to additional elevator stops, with each stop adding an average of 54 seconds to the waiting time. A more shocking statistic was that nearly 70 per cent of delays were caused by the paramedics’ inability to fit the ambulance stretcher into the elevator. Even worse, once the paramedics actually got to the floor in question, poor signage contributed to 82.6 per cent of delays.

Drennan has had run-ins with buildings both new and old where they’ve had to do some serious maneuvering to fit the stretcher into the elevator.

“Exclusively in apartment buildings, we have to break it (the stretcher) down and sort of Tetris it into the elevator,” he says. But this poses a problem on the way back because the only way to transport the patient is with them sitting on the stretcher, instead of lying, which may not be favourable in certain situations.

As condos in Toronto break the 80-storey mark, condo developers and elevator manufactures should be asking themselves one thing: how long will it take a paramedic crew respond to a call on the seventy-second floor? Or the eighty-third floor? They’re responsible for lives in a field where seconds, not to mention minutes, are the difference between whether someone lives or dies.

Chan isn’t worried about her safety at Aura. She says the building frequently tests the fire alarms. When the lift situation gets really bad, she often just hikes up to her unit on the fifteenth floor.

“I’m just lucky that I can take the stairs,” she says, unchaining her bike and looking fit in workout gear. “There are people who can’t walk.”

On the other hand, she says that she’s read the news and thinks people should be aware of the risks. “Do your research before moving in. It’s a good condo, but it’s big. Things can’t always be perfect.”