HAWAII AT WORK
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Being a mechanic for Otis Elevator Co. is all in the family for Scott Higa, above, whose father and uncle also both worked for the company. Above, Higa last week demonstrated some of his repair and maintenance skills in an elevator cabin at the Villa at Eaton Square in Waikiki.
Dealing with life’s ups
Scott Higa makes sure his customers' elevators and escalators are working properly
Title: Elevator mechanic
Job: Repairs and maintains elevators and escalators for Otis Elevator Co.
Scott Higa apparently has heard all the elevator-mechanic jokes during his 16 years in the trade with Otis Elevator Co.
However, when I asked him if had he ever noticed that the word "elevator" implies just one direction -- upward -- that seemed to catch him by surprise.
"Yeah, I never thought about that," he said. "Elevation, yeah" -- which left both of us to wonder what to call elevators or escalators when they're on their way down.
Moving past the craziness of the English language, Higa emphasized how safe elevators are these days, saying he's never heard of a fatal elevator accident in all his years in the business.
It was his employer's founder, in fact, Elisha Otis, who in the mid-1850s pioneered the technology that prevents elevators from falling should their hoist cables break.
Otis' inventions also enabled high-rises to be built, since now people and things could be moved more easily and safely to the higher floors.
By going into elevator work, Higa followed in the footsteps of his father, Robert, and his uncle, Richard, both of whom worked for Otis Elevator for at least 40 years.
Higa himself started training for the trade after earning a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Hawaii, but not before trying his hand in banking and hotels.
"I tried to apply it (my economics degree), but it just didn't work," he said. "I think it's something in my genes, from my dad, that was saying, 'You've got to be an elevator man.'"
Higa, 42, also is a graduate of Iolani School. He lives in Hawaii Kai with his wife, Misao, and their two children -- a son, 5, and a daughter, 15.
How long have you been an elevator mechanic?
Answer: Let's see ... I've been in the trade for 16 years.
Q: Has it all been with Otis Elevator?
A: Yes, all with Otis.
Q: How did you get into the business?
A:Well, I have a relative -- my father -- who had been in the business. He retired with 40 years in the trade. I also have an uncle who just retired with 45 years in the trade. So it's kind of like in the family.
Q: Did they used to take you along?
A: No, they didn't take me along on the job, but at home it was always about elevators. That's all I used to hear about. So when I was a little boy, I heard about how the elevator works; they'd bring all the prints home. It was kind of interesting.
Q: What kind of educational background do you need to be an elevator mechanic?
A: Basically you just have to be a high school graduate, and what we do is on-the-job training, and they also send you to union school after work.
Q: What's "union school"?
A: Our trade is the elevator constructors union. And what they do is, we have classes where they train you how to read blueprints, how to troubleshoot electrically -- all the skills you need for the job. They put you to school at least four years minimum. It's pretty rigorous and intense.
Then after your schooling is done, you're eligible to take the union mechanics exam. And that's where you can become a licensed mechanic.
There's also a state license that we have to be qualified for, so we have to go through another testing, for elevator mechanics specifically.
So you can't just come in there and go, "Hey, I'll fix your elevator." (Laughter) There's some qualifications, some serious qualifying that you have to do.
Q: Do you work when you're taking the union classes?
A: Your classification is called an apprentice, so you're training under a licensed mechanic, learning the ropes.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Scott Higa has been a welcome sight to many passengers stuck in elevators through the years. Last week he shared his various skills during a demonstration at the Villa at Eaton Square. Above, Higa stopped the elevator above the floor level.
Is that how you started?
A: That's how I started, yeah.
Q: Did you have to work for your dad?
A: Yeah, I had to work for my dad, and that was an experience, because he has another side of him. (Laughter). You see the home life of your father, and then you see the work side that you never knew existed.
Q: Does your job have a lot of ups and downs?
A: Yeah, that's what I tell everybody. They ask me, "How was my day?" and I say, "Oh, it had its up and downs."
Q: I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.
A: That's OK.
Q: What are the most common repairs you have to make on elevators?
A: There's a lot of them, but probably they have to do with the elevator doors. There's so much -- in Waikiki especially -- rust and sand, and the weather takes its toll on all our equipment. There are so many components on elevators -- things you never knew existed on elevators.
Also, you know those buttons you press to call an elevator? I get a lot of those broken, too.
Q: Do you work on escalators, too?
Q: What would be considered routine maintenance for elevators and escalators?
A: Well, let's take a high-rise apartment for example. Usually I try to visit the customer, talk to management, and try to get a feel for any problems that might be happening -- things that aren't working, noises -- and I try to take care of those first. Keys down the elevator shaft. We always have those.
Q: Really? People drop their keys into the elevator shaft?
A: Yeah, for some reason there's a magnet down there. (Laughter) People drop their keys down there all the time. Cell phones, too.
Q: What kinds of tools do you use?
A:We have basic tools -- screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches -- and then we have special tools that only elevator mechanics have.
Q: Like what would those be?
A: Special keys to unlock doors. I have probably about a hundred, 200 keys. I have rescue equipment, to get people out in those entrapment situations, when people are stuck. And just specialty tools for our trade, like to keep the doors open, things like that.
Q: What do you advise people to do if they get stuck in an elevator?
A: When people get stuck in the elevator, they ask "Am I going to be all right?" But you know what? The elevator is ventilated, with air from the elevator shaft, and there's a machine room that the shaft is connected to that is ventilated, so there's plenty of air; you won't run out of oxygen.
Also, we're on call 24 hours. Someone is always waiting.
Q: How do you know that an elevator has gotten stuck?
A: When you're stuck in an elevator, you press the emergency button, and that usually sends a phone call to our service center, and they contact us through pager or phone, and we immediately respond to the emergency calls.
Q: Then what about the person in the elevator,
A: The person in the elevator, you can tell them that despite all the movies they've seen (Laughter), I've never heard of an elevator dropping all the way to the bottom. There's electrical and mechanical safety mechanisms that will prevent the elevator from unnecessary movement.
Q: What about people who get stuck on an escalator?
A: Yeah, that one is the hardest one. (Laughter)
Q: Sorry, I couldn't resist that one either.
A: So anyway, for people stuck in elevators, sit tight, don't panic. The elevator guy is on his way.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Higa showed how he inspects the controller panel, which regulates the speed and direction of the elevators.
What was the last emergency you had to respond to?
A: It was just the other night. I was on call, and what happened is, about 8 o'clock I got a page; somebody was stuck in the Waikiki area. So I responded to the call in about 40 minutes. I talked to the people -- Japanese tourists -- they were OK. And then it took about 15 minutes to get them out.
Q: What was wrong?
A: That one was an overload trip.
Q: You mean there were too many people on board?
A: No. It was like your car getting overheated and instead of overheating and breaking, the overload trips before the motor can break. There are safety redundancies in the elevator systems all over the place, in every aspect.
Q: Do you install elevators, too?
A: No. I only do servicing. We have a construction crew that installs.
Q: What is the oldest elevator that you work on?
A: Probably it's the one at Straub Hospital (in the Milnor wing); it's probably from around 1930 or 1940. Its like something out of an old movie, with the collapsible gate.
Q: What is the newest elevator that you work on?
A: Mark, I tell you about this new one they have. It's in Waikiki, and they ride on these belts. Instead of steel hoist ropes, we use these belts that are coated with rubber or plastic, and it's real high-tech. All microprocessor, computerized.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: Hmmm, let's see. Let's start with the worst one, because that's easier. Here's the scenario: It's 3 o'clock in the morning. I get a phone call. I've got an emergency. I've got to walk up 40 flights with my 50-pound tool bag. I'm serious. That happened a couple times already. Forty floors. I'm not feeling too good the next day.
Probably the best part about my job is, a lot of times you go home after you fixed an elevator that wasn't running properly, and everybody in the building was complaining, and after you fix it, they're all happy. So it's that sense of accomplishment.