Curious Wichita: Elevator man ain't messing around
When Ben Blankley, an engineer for Spirit AeroSystems, walks onto an elevator, he looks first at the inspection certificate.
It’s not that he’s particularly worried about being trapped or falling. It’s just that he’s always been a bit of a nerd.
“You can go through a Target and see a thing on a shelf and a regular person might say, ‘I need to buy that for this purpose,’ ” Blankley said. “But an engineer would say, ‘How was that made? How did that get here? Who designed it? How can I make it better?’ That’s just running through our minds as we go through life.”
And recently he noticed that all the elevator inspection certificates he saw in Wichita had one name at the bottom: Bill Loveland.
“Who is Bill Loveland and what is his typical day like?” Blankley asked The Eagle as part of its new series, Curious Wichita, in which readers submit questions. (It turns out there are two inspectors, but Blankley saw the signature from only one of them.)
Blankley was skeptical and then happily surprised when, a week after The Eagle made a request to the city on Blankley’s behalf, Bill Loveland agreed to take him and a reporter with him on Wednesday.
Still, Blankley wasn’t sure what to expect when he showed up outside City Hall on Wednesday morning.
Kansas, like most of the country, continues to become more urban, and it is estimated that in the next 50 years, more than 80 percent of the state’s population will live in a city. The elevator makes living and working in really tall buildings possible.
That means more and more elevators. Since 2001, when Loveland became the city’s inspector, the number of units he inspects (which also includes escalators, dumbwaiters and some wheel-chair lifts) has increased from about 1,200 to more than 1,500.
Elevators can inspire special fears, including claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), agoraphobia (fear of being trapped in small spaces or crowded public spaces) and bathophobia (fear of falling from a high place or of deep spaces).
About 27 people die every year in elevator accidents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In 2014, Joshua Loux, a 41-year-old construction worker with seven children, fell over during an intense coughing fit on a freight elevator in Old Town, his head stuck between the elevator and the wall, and died instantly.
This accident could have been prevented, according to Loveland.
On Wednesday, Blankley met Loveland at City Hall. Loveland was there to inspect its two parking garage elevators before 9 a.m. He had to wait for someone to arrive with the keys to open the two rooms he needed to inspect: the room with the motor and safety equipment, and the electrical closet.
Loveland doesn’t carry much more with him than a flashlight, gloves, a couple of tools that open elevator doors and a long pad on which he writes his inspection comments. He made about 2,200 inspection trips last year and charged $100 for each elevator, from the 22-story Epic Center to a two-story office building. But inspections at a hospital like Wesley Medical Center, which has 40 elevators, can take several days.
Even though buildings are supposed to keep the keys on site, Loveland said tracking them down is frustrating and common. On Wednesday, one of the new buildings he inspected didn’t have the proper keys, and he couldn’t finish the inspection.
He looks for equipment failure. The strands on the wires that hold up some elevators can fray, or the hemp that prevents them from rubbing against each other can get moist and cause them to rust. Hydraulic elevators can start to leak oil, which would drop the pressure that pushes the elevator up.
The backup battery on the elevator can go out. The emergency phone might not function, or even if it did, the emergency responders might not know where it’s located. A bolt might have fallen off “the governor,” one of the main backup safety mechanisms that would catch an elevator if it started to fall. (There is often more than one backup.)
If an elevator starts shaking when you ride it, Loveland said, the problem is usually the guide rollers, which he peeks at with his flashlight. He checks the signs to make sure all the proper warnings are in place, including the markings in Braille. He checks every floor to make sure the door on it hasn’t fallen off the tracks.
Elevators get inspected every year but, for elevators held up by cables and ropes, Loveland does an additional inspection every five years. For those, he’ll fill the elevator with the maximum weight-load and set it to the maximum speed. (In Wichita, he said, the maximum speed is usually less than 10 mph, although in other cities, it can be much faster.)
City Hall’s elevators each have five metal cables to hold them up and hoist them along, even though they are required to have only three, and each of those cables can have up to 50 percent of its strands fail before it becomes a real danger.
With all of the things that can go wrong, it is a testament to Loveland and the mechanics who do maintenance that there aren’t more accidents.
“If all you ever do is watch movies, you freak out,” said Stan Pierce, an elevator mechanic with 39 years of experience who inspected a church elevator on Wednesday with Loveland. “But if you know anything, you know it’s nothing like that. Each company goes over and above.”
Loveland doesn’t travel outside the boundaries of Wichita for inspections. That’s because Kansas, unlike Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado, doesn’t require elevator inspections.
“It’s kind of a common thread in Kansas,” Blankley said. “You do the minimum amount of regulation that people can stand and no more.”
Loveland isn’t that worried about getting on an elevator outside the city, he said, because most responsible companies will pay certified mechanics to maintain their elevators.
But Pierce said that, if he knows an ordinary mechanic has tried to fix a broken elevator, he’ll be extra cautious when he works on it. Pierce is one of about 30 certified elevator mechanics from seven companies in Kansas who are responsible for all the installations and upkeep. Loveland checks the circuitry of elevators to make sure a handyman hasn’t tried to bypass the safety mechanisms.
Even if Pierce puts a padlock on an elevator and tells the owner it’s not safe, he has no legal authority: Only Loveland, within the bounds of Wichita, has the force of law to make a company comply.
Loveland said he knows of only three instances since 2001 when the city had to take an elevator owner to court, and fewer than 10 machines a year pose such an immediate danger that he tells the owners they need to shut them down until the problem is fixed.
Loveland has three certifications in three areas: electrical mechanics, commercial buildings and elevator inspections, each of which he has to keep up to date with training. He has to know the latest codes and equipment for the newest elevator, which can be completely different from older elevators, which operate under previous codes.
The city is currently in the middle of updating the elevator codes from 2004, Loveland said. If the city adopts the new codes, some older elevators would have to be updated with modern safety equipment.
Under the new code, the elevator in which the worker in Old Town died in 2014 would likely have been made safe, Loveland said: It would have included an extra door on the elevator itself, not just on the floors where people get off the elevator, so the man could not have been trapped between the elevator and the wall.
The new codes will be for a new inspector to worry about: Loveland is retiring in November. Loveland’s replacement is already in training, so soon Blankley will have a new signature to stare at.
Elevators continue to be safe. Out of 18 billion trips in the U.S. per year, there are 27 deaths on average. By comparison, 1,600 people die from falling down stairs.
On Wednesday, Loveland inspected everything from the simplest rope-elevator, which is operated by hoisting a rope, to the most advanced machines pulled by flat bands made of both steel and rubber. He loves seeing how well-kept the elevators in old industrial buildings are, although it means he sometimes has to climb up rickety ladders into narrows shafts.
At the end of the day, Blankley said he felt even more safe on elevators than he did before.
“When he wasn’t talking, you could tell he was just looking at all the different components,” Blankley said of Loveland. “It was a pretty thorough going-over of something you would think would be fairly simple.”
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