Private elevator inspector Phil Zwiefelhofer demonstrates various steps of an elevator inspection at the on Thursday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)
If you ride an elevator in the city of Albuquerque, there’s a high probability that Phil Zweifelhofer has looked at it.
Zweifelhofer got into the elevator industry in 1970, after leaving the Marines and a brief career in aviation construction. He moved to Albuquerque two years later, and has been installing, repairing and inspecting elevators ever since.
“If there’s an elevator out there, I’ve worked on it,” Zwiefelhofer said, “… This is all I’ve ever done.”
Zwiefelhofer’s potential customer base is a lot bigger today than it was a year ago, after the city cut its in-house elevator inspection program in September 2021.
Thanks to that change, building owners with elevators are now required to schedule — and pay for — the services of private elevator inspectors like Zweifelhofer on their own. That’s in contrast with the system in the past, where city inspectors proactively set up those mandatory inspections.
One might expect that as a private elevator inspector, Zweifelhofer would see the ending of Albuquerque’s public elevator inspection program as a boon for business.
But he, among other elevator inspectors, says he has seen confusion among building owners about the change.
City officials say they’re working to get a new system up and running to help keep inspections up-to-date. But Zweifelhofer said there’s work to be done in getting that message out, and that it’s a safety issue. Albuquerque Fire Rescue was unable to provide the number of out-of-date inspections since they took over checking inspection certificates in January.
“Building owners don’t even know … what they’re supposed to do,” Zwiefelhofer said. “Probably 90% of them don’t even know they ever had an elevator inspection.”
Cost and cuts
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For years, the city employed its own elevator inspectors, who inspected the city’s more than 1,500 elevators on an annual schedule. But in September 2021, Mayor Tim Keller proposed legislation to cut the program, which was approved by City Council.
Albuquerque was the only city in the state that employed public elevator inspectors. Building owners now have to find their own elevator inspectors and schedule inspection times. In January of this year, Albuquerque Fire Rescue started checking if building owners had in-date inspection certificates.
The program had seen diminishing revenue for several years: in FY2018, the program earned about $128,950. By FY2020, that number had dropped to about $111,069. The revenue fell short of the almost $167,000 budget for the program, which came out of the Building Safety Division’s budget, and covered the salary for two inspectors, their benefits, phones and gas.
A statement cited in the approved FY2022 budget “difficulty in hiring qualified inspectors,” which contributed to rising costs.
When the department was cut, the city inspectors were reassigned to different departments and to roles that didn’t involve inspecting elevators.
“There used to be four inspectors in Albuquerque at one time,” said private elevator inspector Zwiefelhofer. “And they whittled it down to one. And then all at once there was none.”
James Frese was one of the last elevator inspectors employed by the City of Albuquerque. He worked for the city for seven years until the city inspection program was cut. After the number of elevator inspectors dwindled, Frese said he inspected between seven to 10 elevators per day.
And then, none.
“They removed me from the budget,” Frese said. “Didn’t say a word about it.”
Frese was furloughed for a week before being reassigned within the City of Albuquerque to the Code Enforcement division, where his job was to inspect abandoned properties. It wasn’t his specialty, Frese said.
“That isn’t what I do,” said Frese, who worked for Code Enforcement for a week before leaving government for good.
He now works for Otis Elevators as a service technician, where he said he makes about double what he made at the city. But he still regrets not being able to retire in government. Frese has an associate’s degree in electronics and said that while code enforcement wasn’t up his alley, he might have been interested in other opportunities at the city.
“I was pretty hurt and damaged,” Frese said. “… I wanted to finish my career with the city, but I didn’t get that opportunity.”
The city elevator inspections were greatly subsidized for the building owners. Originally, Frese said, elevator inspections from the city cost building owners just $40. But, Frese said, the Planning Department eventually raised the cost to a baseline $150, with an additional $15 fee for each floor over 4 stories. A Planning Department spokesperson said that the tab varied greatly based on the building and job.
Private inspector Zwiefelhofer said he generally charges between $300 and $400. He said that the city missed a huge revenue-generating opportunity by cutting the program.
“The city could have made so much money,” Zwiefelhofer said. “And, you know, just even if you’re breaking even, you’re serving a function, you know, taking care of people.”
Albuquerque Fire Rescue is currently establishing systems to ensure that all of the city’s elevators get inspected. However, the transition hasn’t been smooth for all business owners, some inspectors say.
Since the program expired in January, Albuquerque Fire Rescue has been checking that buildings have up-to-date inspection certificates in their elevators during annual building inspections where they check if sprinklers, fire alarms and other life safety systems are safe. The city uses the 2015 International Building Code, which mandates annual elevator inspections.
“They basically dropped the ball into the lap of Albuquerque Fire Rescue,” said private elevator inspector Charlie Love, who works in Albuquerque.
Fire Marshal Kris Romero said if an inspector found an “immediate threat to life,” the fire department would be able to shut down a building’s elevator or revoke their operating permit, although Fire Rescue doesn’t do any of the actual inspecting themselves. That’s up to third-party inspectors, who report the results to Fire Rescue. If deficiencies are found by an inspector, Fire Rescue Captain Jacob Goevelinger said, building owners have 14 days or less to fix the problem, depending on the severity. The higher the risk, the less time they’ll have to fix it.
In 2019, Albuquerque Fire Rescue partnered with Illinois-based company BRYCER to use their automated program the Compliance Engine, which reminds building owners when they are out of compliance with certain codes. The BRYCER system will be used for elevator inspections as well; however, that program won’t be rolled out until Nov. 1. The Compliance Engine has a special program for elevator inspections, which allows third-party inspectors to upload the results of their inspections directly to the program. Fire Rescue is planning to offer training for third-party elevator inspectors on how to use the system.
“We’re putting things in place to get things rolling,” Goevelinger said.
Love, who has worked on Albuquerque elevators for the past 40 years, said he’s seen an increase in business since the city elevator inspections ended. And, he thinks the BRYCER program will work well.
“It appears to me that it’s going to be a good program when it gets up and running,” Love said. “I think its going to be a fantastic system for everyone.”
Building owners were notified of the inspection change via letter last year. However, some elevator inspectors, including Zwiefelhofer and Frese, say that many building owners are unaware that they now have to find their own, third-party elevator inspectors.
“It’s really weird,” Love said. “The city did a horrible job of rolling these out.”
In response to questions about those concerns, the Albuquerque Planning Department responded with a written statement: “The Planning Department has been collaborating with Albuquerque Fire Rescue (AFR) with the mutual goal of public safety. The change in the elevator program is a result of City Council action. City Council, after giving public notice, voted on this change at a public meeting. The Planning Department then created a frequently asked question page on its website and mailed individual notices to each building owner. Now, AFR is working with building owners to make sure they are aware of the new process.”
Love said that while some building owners he’s spoken with were aware of the change, others were not.
Frese said the general public is likely even more in the dark than business owners.
“As far as the public knows, the city still does that (elevator inspections),” Frese said.
Although Albuquerque Fire Rescue is working to fill in the gaps in city elevator inspections, the local International Union of Elevator Constructors is looking for statewide change.
Marvin Regensberg, business agent for the IUEC Local 131 said the union is drafting elevator safety legislation for the 2023 New Mexico legislative session. The proposed law would standardize elevator inspection rules across the state, mandating annual inspections, and set uniform licensing and education standards for elevator inspectors. The annual inspections would require a third-party witness with a Qualified Elevator Inspector certification from the National Association of Elevator Inspectors to supervise elevator mechanics during inspections — in essence, replacing the role that city inspectors had up until last year on a statewide level.
Instructor Kolten Herring, left, and second-year trade student Grant Maloy, center, view a model elevator during an elevator constructor apprenticeship program sponsored by the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 131. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)
The union attempted to pass similar legislation in 2019. The Elevator Safety Act, had it passed, would have given property owners 60 days to fix elevator safety violations found during inspections. The bill passed one committee, then died in the second.
The Local 131 union, which has 92 members, represents New Mexico as well as parts of Colorado and Texas. Regensberg said that Colorado and Texas both already have state elevator safety laws in place.
“The members we have in Texas and Colorado, they don’t have the problems I got,” Regensberg said. “You know? … Because they know, if they say something’s wrong with the elevator, it’s going to get fixed.”
Zwiefelhofer said that he’s less concerned for the people riding elevators than the people working on them.
“Elevators right now, in this day and age, are safe for the riding public,” Zwiefelhofer said. “But they’re unsafe for the technicians.”
Most of the time, if an elevator fails, the worst that will happen to someone riding is that they get trapped inside. But technicians, who have to climb on top of and under elevators, are at higher risk if something goes wrong. Even missing a light, Zwiefelhofer said, can be dangerous for technicians.
Regensburg said that working in elevators has been the most dangerous job he’s ever had. His thumb was crushed by an elevator and he had to get it partially amputated. He said he’s worried about elevator safety in New Mexico without additional safety regulations.
“Thank God, nothing bad has happened. Right?” Regensberg said. “But how long are we willing to gamble, or take the chance?”