What Goes Up

A salute to the small but dedicated cadre of elevator professionals who see to it that your next ride won't be your last

This particular elevator rises only two stories and is hydraulic-powered, the type most commonly found in buildings no more than five stories high. It operates much like the lift in an auto-repair shop: An electric motor pumps oil into a cylinder, causing the elevator car to rise. Then valves release the oil for a controlled descent. (The other basic elevator type employs cables that run from the top of the car, over grooved wheels called sheaves at the top of the building, and down to a counterweight.)

Mario summons the elevator, then sends it up to the second floor, empty. As it ascends, he pulls a slim metal rod out of his pocket A the elevator key A and slides it into a little hole located near the top of the outer elevator door. After giving the rod a few measured twists, he is able to slide open the door to reveal the darkened elevator shaft and its innards. He plays the beam of his flashlight off the hydraulic lift and the bottom of the elevator car. Noting the presence of trash and oil that has leaked onto the floor A fire hazards A he tallies his second violation. "Pretty nasty pit," he sums up, letting the door slide shut and calling the car back down.

When the elevator arrives and the door opens, Mario scrapes a boot heel over the threshold to ensure that the floor of the car is level with the hallway (an uneven match could precipitate an injury, not to mention a costly trip-and-fall lawsuit), then boards the car and rides it upward (it moves smoothly). He tests the emergency button (it works) and discovers that the emergency phone is missing (violation number three). Once on the second floor, he sends the elevator down empty and again keys open the door to inspect the top of the car (escape hatch bolted, but more debris).

Mario checks out the mall's other elevator, as well as its 1908 German-made Herschell-Spillman merry-go-round: Metro-Dade's elevator inspectors are also responsible for amusement rides and dumbwaiters, not to mention escalators, moving sidewalks, and wheelchair lifts. Before leaving the building he will stop by the management office and leave copies of the various inspection reports. The manager has 30 days to fix the problems. Violations that persist beyond that grace period can lead to fines of $200 a day, although this is rare. Egregiously flawed elevators can be padlocked shut, a process known as "red tagging." (Says Mario: "That friggin' Nathan [Quarles]. He red-tagged the elevator in my condo last week!")

Mario is one of seven Metro-Dade elevator inspectors, who between them examine the majority of elevators in Dade County. Miami and Miami Beach are the only municipalities to employ their own elevator inspectors; the others contract with the county, which also handles the elevators in unincorporated Dade, as well as those belonging to the State of Florida. (The federal government handles its own.)

For his part, Mario has a fair amount of ground to cover: His region extends from the Palmetto Expressway to Krome Avenue and from SW Eighth Street to Kendall Drive. He also takes care of most county structures A administration buildings, public schools, public housing, Jackson Memorial Hospital, et cetera. By the end of this day, he will have inspected about ten elevators, including several at Florida International University and one at Gloria and Emilio Estefan's Crescent Moon Studios. (That building has a repeat violation: The machine room is being used to store packaging for a recording console. Mario gives the Estefans an extra few days to correct the fault.)

In all matters of elevator inspecting, the Florida Statutes are the final word. The law requires elevators in Florida to undergo a thorough initial inspection and safety test, as well as a reinspection once every two years. (Lifts in private residences are a little different and receive only an initial inspection.) Miami Beach, Miami, and Dade County set the bar progressively higher: The Beach aims for inspections once every eighteen months; Miami shoots for annual inspections; and Dade County makes a run at twice-yearly checkups, the guideline recommended by the American Society of Engineers. The various inspection divisions in Dade extract fees for performing their tasks that range from less than $100 to nearly $300 per inspection period.

Dade County's inspectors generally average between eight and twelve reinspections per day. And still they can barely keep up. Each of the seven inspectors is responsible for about 860 pieces of equipment, the majority of which are elevators. Miami Beach inspector Nathan Quarles has to cover 1700 lifts all by his lonesome (impossible). And Miami's Harjeet Singh single-handedly juggles 2600 ("What should I say?" he chuckles uncomfortably. "It's too many.")

The short supply of inspectors is more than a budgetary issue; it's a matter of public safety. With so many elevators to cover, inspectors are either having to hurry their inspections to stay on schedule (they say they don't do this) or allowing many elevators to go uninspected for months, if not years, after they're due.

Some relief is on the way. Miami Beach is advertising for an additional inspector (starting annual salary: $25,800 to $35,600), and the City of Miami this past week brought on a new man to help Singh.

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