HAWAII AT WORK
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Scott Matsumoto has been a traffic-signal electrician for the city for almost 20 years. Above, from his perch in the "bucket" of a truck, he pulled wires through the pipes to connect the new "Walk" sign on the corner of Fort Street Mall and Beretania Street.
Giving us the right signals
Scott Matsumoto got a career green light when he became an electrician with the city
Title: Traffic signal electrician
Job: Repairs and maintains traffic signals on Oahu
Scott Matsumoto graduated from Kaimuki High School almost 25 years ago, not quite sure what he should do for a career.
Looking for a signal about which direction he should go, he tried out a few different jobs, but didn't find them satisfying. For a while he thought he might like to be an auto mechanic, and so attended Honolulu Community College for a year to take classes in that field.
Then he saw an ad in the newspaper placed by the City & County of Honolulu, which was hiring for a variety of positions. He filed his application, and was happy when the city hired him as an electrician's helper in its Traffic Signal and Technology Division, which is part of the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services.
Five years later, he became a journeyman electrician. Now almost a 20-year veteran of the division, Matsumoto enjoys his career as a traffic-signal electrician, which every day has him working at different locations around Oahu to fix or maintain the city's, and the state's, traffic signals -- all 800 or so of them.
Matsumoto, 42, is married to the former Roxane Ouchi, with whom he has a son, 11, and a daughter, 6. They reside in Kaimuki.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Daniel Chun took his turn in the bucket as Les Mori, on the ladder, and Matsumoto, on the ground, positioned and attached a sign to the new signal at the corner of Queen and Cooke streets. The new signal is a foot farther from the street corner than was its predecessor, which kept getting hit and damaged by trucks.
What is your main responsibility as a city traffic signal electrician?
Scott Matsumoto: My main responsibility is repair and maintenance of the traffic signals on the island.
Q: Do you work only on the electrical portions of the traffic signals, or do you help install them, too?
A: We do installation when the signals get knocked down, like with accidents and stuff, but if it's like a brand-new intersection, the city puts it out to bid and we have an electrical contractor do the installation, then we do the splicing and the wiring of the signal and the control cabinet.
Q: Is that a computerized thing?
A: Yes. Every intersection has a cabinet on one of the corners and in it is a computer that controls the timing and the other functions of the intersection.
Q: Are you actually an electrician?
A: Yes. As a journeyman electrician, you have to have an electrical license.
Q: How did you learn to be an electrician?
A: When I was hired, I was hired as an electrician's helper, so it was pretty much on-the-job training for five years, and after that -- after I made the working hours -- I was qualified to take the test, and after I got my license, I became a journeyman.
Q: Are you in a union?
A: Yeah, we're part of the UPW (the United Public Workers).
Q: Are you pretty good with computer kinds of things, too?
A: No. (Laughter) I know how to turn my computer on, check my e-mails. But hobby-wise, I'm not really good with the computer.
Q: Is it pretty much a regular-hours job for you or do you have to respond to emergencies at any time of the day?
A: Well, we have regular 40-hour shift, which is from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and after hours and on weekends we're on standby.
We have two trouble-call men at 24 hours a day. For instance, right now I'm a trouble-call man, so I stand by at night and on weekends. And during the regular week, I'm on the regular 40-hour shift. So at night, I bring the truck home with me, and I respond to calls from HPD (Honolulu Police Department).
Q: Why would HPD call you?
A: They call for anything from light-outs to knockdowns.
Q: Do you respond by yourself, or do you take somebody with you?
A: Usually I respond alone, but if the situation is extreme, I might call my partner.
Q: Do you get extra pay for being the trouble-call guy?
A: If we don't get any calls, we get a small hourly fee. But if we get called out, we get time and a half.
Q: Are you part of a regular crew?
A: Yes, I am. We have eight electricians and two apprentices.
Q: So do you all go out in a single truck or what?
A: It depends on the size of the job we have for the day. A lot of times we split into smaller crews. We'll leave for the location at the same time, and we follow each other to the job site, and we all get there pretty much the same time.
Q: So you have trucks and cars?
A: We have the cherry-picker truck with the bucket on top and regular pickup trucks.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Scott Matsumoto, an electrician with the city, repairs and maintains traffic signals for both the city and the state. Above, Matsumoto, center, worked earlier this month at the corner of Queen and Cooke streets with colleagues Gael Kanakaokai, left, Les Mori, right, and Daniel Chun, in the "bucket."
What is a typical day for you at work?
A: I usually come in at least an hour early, to make coffee, hang out and relax a little while before we start -- and beat the traffic. I live in Kaimuki and our shop is in Pearl City. I don't want to get stuck in traffic.
So then we get our work orders. We prepare for the job. Like if it's a knockdown, we have to construct the brackets and the signals to replace the originals that got knocked down.
Q: Do signals get knocked down a lot?
A: Yeah, you'd be surprised. Just this weekend we had five. But it tends to go with the weather. If the weather is not so good, then you get more. Or like long weekends, or graduation time when people are partying a lot, we tend to have more knockdowns than usual.
Q: Are you responding also to knocked-down signs?
A: No, just the signals. But sometimes if the sign gets knocked down along with the signal, then we'll fix that too.
Q: Is the job very physical?
A: Yeah, at times. When we have knock-downs, we have to pick up the poles that get knocked down, and the light fixtures and the bracketry. And sometimes we have to pour cement. When the pole gets knocked down, the whole concrete base comes out of the ground also, so sometimes we're doing concrete work. So, yeah, it can get physical.
Q: So you go all over the island throughout the week?
A: Yeah. We have about 800 or so intersections throughout the island, and the state doesn't have a traffic-signal division, so we take care of the state intersections, too.
Q: What are some state intersections?
A: All the intersections on Farrington Highway, Kamehameha Highway, Kalanianaole Highway, and all the freeway offramps and onramps.
Q: Do you know if the city gets any money from the state for that?
A: I know we bill the state for maintenance, if we have to replace components, but I think the money goes into the general fund, not directly back to us. But, yeah, we do get some sort of compensation.
I don't know if you know the answer to this, but why does it take so long sometimes for some busy intersections to get left-turn arrows?
A: That I have no clue. I'm just the worker. I just go out and fix what I gotta fix, repair what I gotta repair. That's up to the upper echelon to deal with that.
Q: So you're pretty happy with your work?
A: Yeah, it's an interesting job. People don't realize that there's so much involved. We pretty much do something different every day. It's not monotonous.
There's the push-button circuits, that pedestrians push at the intersections; there's the vehicle-detector circuits; and there's emergency-vehicle signals. It's called the Opticom. Fire trucks and ambulances have a special strobe light, and at certain locations in town, they can have the light turn green for whichever direction they're headed.
Q: I thought something like that was going on sometimes.
A: Yeah. A lot of times we get complaints because of that. The light will turn green, but then an ambulance is coming so it turns yellow and then red in just a few seconds. And the motorists are sitting there going, "Eh, what the heck?"
Q: Have you ever heard anyone using those Opticom-type devices without authorization?
A: I heard of them selling them on the Internet, but as far as anyone having them here in Hawaii, I haven't heard of any instances of them using it or abusing it. They could be, for all we know, because unless we're right there to see it, we don't know if they're using it or not.
Q: On those signal poles, when people press those buttons to activate the light, are those just placebos, or do they really work?
A: On the main street, if there's buses on the main street, we have the "Walk" coming on all the time, but if you're crossing the main street, most of the times the push buttons are in operation.
Q: So they really do work?
A: Yes (Laughter) There's a lot of stories about, you know, "Oh, that's just a pacifier," but a lot of times, if you don't press the button, the "Walk" won't come up for you.
Q: Are there any jobs in the private sector that might interest you if you ever retire from the city?
A: I would assume I would be doing something similar.
Q: Maybe work for one of those contractors?
A: Yeah, or even maybe like a consultant kind of thing, because I've been with the Traffic Signal (Division) for so long.
Q: How long have you been with the city's Traffic Signal and Technology Division?
A: Come January, I'll make 20 years.
Q: What were you doing before you joined the city?
A: I worked at the usual right-out-of-high-school kinds of jobs -- Foodland, rent-a-car ... You gotta try and find yourself. I went to HCC (Honolulu Community College) for a year. I actually wanted to be an auto mechanic.
But then there was an apprenticeship hiring. The City & County was hiring across the board for all kinds of trades. I checked whatever they had available, and, luckily, I got called by the electricians.