Cleveland offers advice for seniors (or really anyone) dealing with elevator issues in high-rise buildings

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - There are roughly 3,900 elevators in the city of Cleveland.

Sometimes they break down, and sometimes, they break down with people inside.

When Cleveland 19's investigative team first started digging into the volume of elevator rescue operations in Cleveland, we noticed that a big percentage of the rescues were happening at senior high-rise apartments. That lead to us uncovering another problem: seniors with mobility issues are also getting stuck inside their apartments when elevators break down.

"You got people in wheelchairs that can't get down here," said Theresa Hudson, who lives in the Euclid Beach Club Apartments. "Just think about it. If you had something wrong with your hip, and you got to either sit down and scoot down and walk down the steps. That's what a lot of them have to do."

"They just can't be going up and down 16 floors of steps," said Euclid Beach Club tenant Freddie Holman.

After meeting with Hudson, Holman and several other senior citizens who called and emailed to Cleveland 19 about their own elevator issues, we started searching for possible solutions. We reached out to Cleveland City Hall, where officials with the Department of Building and Housing, Division of Fire and Department of Aging agreed to sit down with us to give advice and get answers for everyone affected by this problem.

Cleveland officials Mary McNamara, Lt. Mike Norman (center) and Thomas Vanover at City Hall discussing solutions for seniors (Source: WOIO)

"Unless somebody calls us and tells us that the elevators been out for three weeks, four weeks, we don't know," said Thomas Vanover, Cleveland's Chief Building Official. Cleveland and Cincinnati are the only cities in the state of Ohio that do their own elevator inspections. The Ohio Department of Commerce is responsible for inspecting the rest.

Elevators in Cleveland generally only inspected once a year, so if there is a problem in your building, Vanover said you should call the Department of Building and Housing at 216-664-2282 to report it.

Some of the seniors we spoke with said residents are often too afraid to express their concerns to building  management for fear of retaliation. Vanover says no one should be scared to report their concerns to the city, because complaints will be kept anonymous. "They shouldn't be concerned," he told us. "We're the Building Department and we're going to be in the building anyhow."

"It's not where we go in and say, 'Your tenant in suite 136 called and said the elevator's been down [for] three weeks.' We just show up and ask them if the elevator's been down," said Vanover.

Director of Aging Mary McNamara says you can also give her department a call at 216-664-2833 if you are struggling to get answers about maintenance issues. "My department's role is really to advocate and amplify the voices of older adults," said McNamara. "It's in our normal protocol that we would call the building manager and sort of try and find out what's happening. 'Is the elevator part ordered? When do you expect it to be fixed?'"

RELATED: East Cleveland man marooned in apartment due to broken elevator

Another major concern the stranded seniors have: what should they do in the event of a fire?

Marvin Young is in a wheelchair and lives on the seventh floor of a high-rise building. He told us there have been three fires in his building in the last year. When asked what he would do if he needed to evacuate, Young replied, "I can't. I guess a fire truck would have to literally come get me from the window." Even if he could have used the stairs to escape, Young said the stairwells were filled with smoke.

Marvin Young, who uses a wheelchair, says a broken elevator has left him virtually trapped in his apartment for weeks (Source: WOIO)

"If you have a situation where you're not ambulatory or you feel like you need help getting out, then you can let the fire department know and we'll come and get you," said Cleveland Fire Lt. Mike Norman.

Norman says unless the fire is in your apartment, or impinging on your apartment, your safest bet is to shelter in place. "Keep the door closed so you're compartmentalized, it will keep the smoke away," said Norman. "If smoke's coming under the door, you can block it with a towel or something, but your safest bet is to stay put."

We've all been taught not to use elevators during a fire, but we asked Norman if there is ever an instance where it would be OK.

"The firefighters are going to come on scene, we're going to take control of the elevator and we're going to use the elevator to bring personnel and equipment up to the fire floor," said Norman.

He also says residents should avoid the stairs. "A lot of times the standpipes are in the stairways," said Norman. "That's where we'll be using them essentially as hydrants. You may run into the firefighters if you're trying to go down the stairs. We would advise that people stay in their apartments."

When we asked seniors at various high-rise buildings about their building's safety and evacuation plans, most told us they weren't aware of any plans or that their building didn't have one.

Norman says it is important for everyone, whether you live in an apartment or a home, to have an emergency plan.

"You want to make sure that you know the means of egress, you've got a plan in place before the emergency occurs, and then that gives you the piece of mind that you know what to do in those situations," said Norman.

If your building doesn't have an emergency plan, McNamara said the Department of Aging can work with your building's management to develop a plan.

As part of the Senior Power Program, the city's Aging and Consumer Affairs Departments collaborate with Cleveland Fire, Police and EMS to increase knowledge and awareness about fire hazards, crime prevention emergency services and programs for the elderly. "We also have a great senior safety resource guide that we can distribute in buildings that talks about fire safety, talks about personal safety, talks about health and wellness," said McNamara.

Senior Safety & Resource Guide (Source: City of Cleveland)

We've also heard from seniors who say getting groceries and other essential items has been a struggle when elevators are broken. Cleveland resident Netty Coleman, 93, said she went to the grocery store one day, and when she returned, her building's elevator was down.

Coleman lives on the fifth floor and is unable to use the stairs. She told us she had to catch a ride to her daughter's house, where she was then able to put perishable food in the refrigerator until she was able to get back up to her apartment.

If you're having a hard time leaving your home to get groceries and other essential items, the city says it can help.

"We connect them to what we call 'The Aging Network,'" said McNamara. "No one agency, hospital system, church, does all of the services an older adult might need, but there's a whole network that we're a part of and we'll try and help them stay as independent for as long as possible."

Older residents and residents with disabilities can call 216-664-4383 for referrals to programs and assistance available in your zip code.

If your building or workplace has has problem elevator, we would like to hear about it. Please send an email to

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