Brow Beat

What’s That Thing? Elevator Button Edition

Buttons in a New York City elevator.

Juliana Jimenez for Slate

The fifth entry in an occasional series examining mysterious or overlooked objects in our visual landscape. If you would like to suggest an object for the series, see the email address provided at the bottom of this post.

Years ago, in the high-rise Mexico City branch of a well-known international hotel, the elevator in which I was riding lurched to a sickening, between-floors halt. Soon it began to move; then the lights flickered and it again stopped dead. This terrifying pattern repeated every few minutes. My fellow passengers and I introduced ourselves—it seemed like the polite thing to do—then tried our cell phones. None worked. So we pried open the little panel with a phone icon on it. Inside: a fistful of wires and a tag that read (I kid you not), “Install phone here.”

We pressed the “alarm” button, featuring a bell-shaped symbol. Surely this would trigger a cascade of amber alerts in some high-tech nerve center elsewhere in the city, where a head-setted operative would furiously tap her keyboard while piping reassuring words (“Our team is on its way to you now,” something like that) straight into the elevator. Instead, the button rang an offline, old-school bell inside the elevator, so loud and irritating that we soon stopped pressing it.

So I was understandably curious when someone pointed out to me the ‘S’ button pictured above. Apparently, it’s on many elevators. Is it more helpful than the “alarm” bell in that horrifying Mexico City elevator? Does it do anything at all?  

Your four choices:

a) The ‘S’ stands for “safe.” Emergency workers need a quick, failsafe means of reaching the quickest exit, and pressing the “safe button” will send them there without any other stops in between. Don’t abuse this—but if you press and hold the S-button, you’ll go straight to that floor (often the ground floor, but sometimes the basement) bypassing all other floors.

b) The ‘S’ stands for “service.” When maintenance workers need to hold an elevator at a floor, pressing and holding this button for several seconds will take the elevator out of circulation for a pre-programmed amount of time—usually five minutes, or until a floor is selected. While only maintenance workers are supposed to use this button, it can be quite useful when, for instance, bringing up a whole bunch of groceries to your apartment.

c) The ‘S’ button doesn’t do anything at all. Buildings have varying numbers of floors and various optional extras, but button panels are pre-cut with a fixed number of buttons. If your building doesn’t use all the buttons, you can either pay extra for a custom panel, or put in “filler” buttons. The ‘S’ button is one of these.

d) The ‘S’ stands for “sound.” It turns on (and off) a series of audible signals, usually beeps, that indicate how many floors have been passed. This feature is provided to assist visually impaired elevator passengers.

And the answer is…

… d). The button activates a series of beeps that count the passing floors, enabling visually impaired riders to know when they’ve reached their destination by counting the chimes. Kristen Harnedy, a spokeswoman for Otis, the world’s largest elevator company, explained to me that this feature was added to elevators in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 1991 ADA Standards decree that when an elevator “car passes or stops at a floor served by the elevators … an audible signal shall sound … no less than 20 decibels with a frequency no higher than 1500 Hz.” Many elevators do this on every ride. Other elevators provide an ‘S’ button that temporarily activates this feature.

The ‘S’ button is particularly common in New York City. Perhaps with all the skyscrapers, building owners were worried about unnecessary beeping. The button means elevators beep only when it’s helpful to an occupant.

Some elevators, however, neither beep, nor announce the floor verbally (an alternative to beeps), nor have an ‘S’ button. Are those responsible for such elevators breaking the law? Not necessarily, according to an official at the Department of Justice. That’s because buildings don’t have to instantly comply with new ADA rules. If an elevator predates those rules, it need not abide by them them until it’s altered or replaced.

So ‘S’ buttons will be around for a while. But you’re unlikely to see any new ones: In the 2010 version of the ADA rules (which took force on March 15th this year) the option for an ‘S’ button was removed. New elevators will have floor-arrival announcements or floor-passing beeps at all times.

It’s not clear why the rule was changed. One possibility: It’s not always easy for visually impaired riders to find the button, even though it’s usually marked in Braille.

The new ADA standards also specify how many beeps you’ll hear when you’re waiting for an elevator. When the elevator arrives, one beep means up; two means down.

As for me and that Mexico City death-box: It eventually reached a floor (sort of) and the doors opened (mostly). We ran down twenty flights of stairs, somehow missed the lobby, and arrived in the hotel’s kitchen, where we pantomimed our plight to the bewildered cooks.

When a mystery other than your life flashes before your eyes, take a picture and send it along:

Previous editions of What’s That Thing?
Pastoral Doodad
Ominous Gizmo
Dashboard Arrow
Mysterious Wires