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New Elevator Tech a Big Help for Those with Disabilities

Keeping up with building safety codes is not an especially exciting job. There are various codes to keep an eye on, and the requirements from each one can make the documents longer than some novels. For example, ASME A17.1-2019, a widely accepted code throughout North America for the design and operation of elevators, checks in at more than 500 pages. So, while going through codes like this may not be as fun as reading a lengthy piece of fiction, it’s pretty darn important that property owners do it.

Recent changes to ASME A17.1-2019 and other building codes include revisions to emergency communication requirements. The revisions were made so property owners and managers could maintain communication with occupants who may get stuck inside a malfunctioning elevator. Specifically, the revisions are intended to help the deaf, hard of hearing, and speech-impaired who can be vulnerable when trapped in elevators without the ability to communicate.

How would the revisions help? By requiring two-way communications systems in elevators to include visual, text, and video-based elements and be connected to call center personnel via a 24/7 live interactive system. The new requirements are being included in other codes, including the 2018 International Building Code (IBC), and according to some, they’re a huge difference-maker in elevator safety for people with hearing and speech disabilities. However, the new tech required could be a significant shift for property owners who don’t currently have two-way video services in their elevators.

“You have to add a significant amount of equipment to an elevator for two-way communication systems,” said Arthur Dionisio, New Construction at Stanley Elevator Co. “From a building owner’s perspective, you have to sign up with a phone company capable of receiving a video feed, not just a phone line, and also have a high-speed internet connection on your elevator.”

Dionisio said this may already be standard practice for some high-rise buildings and not as big of a deal. But low- to mid-rise facilities, especially in rural areas, may not have those tech capabilities currently installed. Adding video two-way communication systems can be a bit of a cost burden, but it’s for safety, so it’s crucial. Depending on the authority that has jurisdiction, it may also be required. Dionisio said New Hampshire is one of the few states that auto-updates new buildings codes. For buildings in other jurisdictions, the two-way video emergency system is still relatively new and may not be required for another few years. States and jurisdictions that have adopted IBC 2018 or ASME A17.1-2019 and require the video emergency systems include Phoenix, Chicago, Nevada, Alabama, South Carolina, and Maryland.

An estimated cost for installing the communication systems would run between $2,500 to $5,000 per elevator, according to a Home Innovation Research Labs report that looked at costs of the 2018 ICC Code Changes for Multifamily Buildings. Schindler Group, a Swiss manufacturer of elevators and escalators, says that in addition to installing the communications visual device and touch screen, building owners would also have to install a video camera that becomes activated when an occupant makes a call for help. As Dionisio said, the system would also need a high-speed internet connection and would need to be connected to a customer service network that could answer emergency calls.

Even if your jurisdiction doesn’t require it, installing two-way video communications in elevators is a great way to ensure the safety of hearing- or speech-impaired tenants or employees in case of emergencies. The new technology boosts elevator safety and helps people with disabilities, and according to some elevator companies, the video displays can have added benefits outside of emergencies, like providing engaging entertainment content and informational updates in your building.

A rare but scary emergency

Elevators and lifts are complex pieces of equipment, but they’re very reliable. A typical well-maintained elevator in a commercial or residential building averages about 0.5 to 2 breakdowns per year, according to Elevating Studio, a Dutch elevator consultancy firm. If you use an elevator eight times per day in an office and you work 200 days, then you’ll make about 1,600 trips on the office elevator per year. So, when you do the math, your chance of getting trapped in that office elevator in a typical year is about 0.16 percent.

The chances of getting stuck in an elevator are slim, but it can be a scary experience when it does happen. For most of us, there are a few general emergency guidelines to follow that help, such as calling 911, pressing the call and alarm button, and staying calm. Two-way voice-only emergency systems are usually good enough to resolve the situation if they’re adequately monitored. But for people with disabilities like the hearing and speech impaired, getting trapped in an elevator can be a nightmare. Technicians calling from emergency phones can’t be understood by the hearing and speech impaired, cutting them off from calming communication and hindering rescue efforts.

New tech for two-way video systems, then, can be a huge safety improvement that greatly helps disabled tenants and employees. In addition to speech capabilities, the systems add text and, depending on the third-party emergency call center, possibly even sign-language support for people who get stuck. With most two-way systems, the disabled occupant presses the ‘emergency’ button on the video display and then answers a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. The questions can be accompanied by sign-language videos, safety instructions, and messages telling the occupant that help is on the way. Authorized personnel would be able to view the cab interior via a camera and communicate with passengers, too. 

Sign language capabilities are critical in two-way video systems in elevators, according to View, an Austrian elevator management company. Sign language is the primary form of communication for most deaf and partially deaf people, so communication systems that don’t include it may not be the best option. Installing these systems can go a long way for property owners toward making their buildings more accessible and friendly for the disabled.

Additional benefits

Interactive touch panels are a vital part of two-way emergency systems in elevators, and they have additional benefits. The touch panels can display entertainment and news feeds, branding and marketing messages, information about the company or property, and they can provide systems monitoring. All these benefits can add to the overall tenant experience.

Marc Kidd, CEO of Captivate, a digital signage display company, says touch panels in elevators bring a video and text network to tenants like news, information, and sports. “Elevators are awkward social spaces,” Kidd said. “When you get in one, you tend to look at your feet or your belt buckle. When there’s a screen in there, it will take your attention to it. The screens can also be used to educate, inform, and connect buildings with their tenants.”

Elevator touch panels are becoming increasingly common, especially in hotels and hospitality. Kidd says his company delivers its digital elevator signage solutions primarily to Class A and Class B office buildings. Many of these systems are also customizable and can be connected to smartphones, computers, and tablets so building owners and facilities managers can check performance data and place service calls. Increased elevator connectivity is a trend in the industry, connecting the lifts with service providers who get alerts on when faults appear or are likely to develop.

As for two-way video communication, two essential add-on services are remote elevator monitoring and a connection with a call center. Both of these outside vendors can help in emergency situations. Today, some elevator vendors provide 24/7 call centers that can quickly dispatch technicians in cases of people stuck in elevators or other needed emergency repairs. Remote elevator monitoring vendors track hundreds of lifts throughout the country and sometimes the world, and they’re able to diagnose and pinpoint problems and send automatic service calls before the elevator experiences a malfunction.

As we mentioned, depending on your jurisdiction, installing two-way emergency video communications for elevators may be required by building or elevator code. But the benefits of installing these systems could go beyond mere compliance. Video communications and interactive touch displays go a long way toward helping people with disabilities in the event of emergencies like being stuck in elevators. Without these systems, communicating with the hearing or speech-impaired in elevator emergencies is much more challenging.

With a single investment in video communications, property owners can also realize other benefits, such as a sleeker and more comfortable tenant experience with entertainment, news feeds, and other digital displays. Elevator breakdowns don’t happen very often, but you may want to consider adding this new tech to help vulnerable tenants and employees and beef up elevator safety.

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