Unclear on the Concept

I was sitting in my office on campus, working on some computer stuff, when I noticed a bunch of guys from Facilities out in the hall, bustling around doing something. A few minutes later, one of them stopped right outside my door, and called into the main Facilities office on his cell phone.

"We're up here in Science and Engineering to do the annual fire alarm test but, um, there are a bunch of faculty still in the building. Could you, you know, send them an email or something to let them know we're going to ring all the alarms?"

This wouldn't be a big deal if it were a one-off thing-- we are in our winter break, after all, and if I were totally new to academia, I'd be a little surprised to find people working during the break, too. But this happens every year. I've been here nine years now, and every year, something happens that indicates that the staff have absolutely no idea that faculty do research when classes aren't in session.

At least this one didn't involve cutting power to the building without telling anyone. Which reminds me, I need to email some people to remind them not to cut the power to my lab over the Christmas break without warning me first...

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When I worked at Brown University even in a non-academic office we'd still stuffer net outages, power outages etc. when classes weren't in session. The guys in plant and network figured those were the best times to do upgrades, patches etc.

I finally got them to give us a heads up when they were going to be cutting net or power.

The facilities folks decided to "close" much of the campus I'm at from Christmas through New Years and we'll even be on emergency power for a couple of those days. Not surprisingly, the faculty, the post-docs and the students (n.b. this means Ph.D. students as we don't even have undergrads) are unhappy with this...

"Which reminds me, I need to email some people to remind them not to cut the power to my lab over the Christmas break without warning me first..."

...it would be bad.

Define "bad."

The university where I work has always (for at least as long as I've been here) shut down with mandatory time off during the Christmas to New Years period. This year they've sent around a notice that several buildings (including the one I work in) have a planned power outage scheduled during this period so that electrical contractors renovating one of the buildings can install a new power system. At least they've warned us in advance and chosen the week when it will be least disruptive (people understand that campus activity doesn't drop to zero within 24 hours of the last final exam), but that means I'll have to do without e-mail for a day.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

I have a somewhat similar story, although I wasn't involved in research.

University employees at my old school didn't really seem to care what was happening in "their" building, on any level. When I managed my old college radio station, I had to explain to the cleaning staff that when the "ON AIR" sign over the door to the broadcasting booth was lit up, they really shouldn't barge in with a vacuum cleaner howling away.

Blank stares. "Why on Earth not?" Talk about clueless....


By Roadtripper (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

As a scientist employed by the US Government, we don't have such natural phases like classes-out-of-session for the building and maintenance people to mess things up, but that doesn't stop them from planning and starting major renovation projects without ever bothering to tell the occupants of a building what's in store.

It pays to get friendly with the facilities folks. Get to know the electrician, maintenance chief and systems operators in charge of your areas. Introduce yourself, give them the ten cent tour of your lab. Offer them the use of the lab coffee pot. Even if they may never understand the details of what you do they should have some general understanding. It is far easier to inconvenience a faceless researchers who is doing 'stuff' than Doctor O, the guy who I shared that coffee with, who is working on the next generation computing.

It won't make a difference in some cases, we had to drop power on that transformer full of PCBs when it shorted out, converting the block into a superfund site wouldn't help anything, but these sorts of situations are few and far between. If the people in the maintenance shop know you as 'one of the good ones' the odds are you get more warning and consideration.

Art's advice at #8 is good, and everyone should do it. It's the approach I take (especially since I don't have tenure). Unfortunately, this leads to situations like yours where the facilities guys don't WANT to put you out, but their supervisors haven't made the necessary arrangements so that facilities and you can both do your jobs.

Unfortunately, at most institutions, you need to use a little bit of the opposite approach: get a departmental bad cop (preferably the chair) who goes completely apeshoot whenever something like this happens. The complaints need to be impassioned and sent straight to the upper levels of administration; they're the ones you need to get to realize that the issue is important. It's then their jobs to get the folks who are in charge of the facilities folks (rather than the electricians themselves) to accommodate you. In an ideal world, this would be done with polite and respectful memos. Unfortunately, going nuts often works better.

I've heard that comparing one's institution to working in a third-world country is effective.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

It pays to get friendly with the facilities folks.

I'm on pretty good terms with the regular facilities people. this group was a different crowd than are usually in the building. They might be new (we've had some retirements), or they might just be a special Fire Safety unit that comes around to test alarms.

Whoever they were, though, somebody in that office really needs to remember that not everything stops when the students go home.

I'd have bitten my tongue to keep from blurting out: "faculty do research when classes aren't in session. The same as you mofos get paid for standing around staring into space when someone with a clipboard stands there pretending to be a supervisor."

Gee, at our college the fire marshal tests the alarms by pulling one while class is in session. They want to see if everyone (anyone?) leaves their classrooms and offices and goes where they are supposed to go.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 12 Dec 2009 #permalink

The biggest problem is that facilities folk don't understand that even 30 seconds without power can damage any system maintained under active vacuum and can create power surges that damage delicate electronics.

After my postdoc lab started billing facilities for broken equipment every time they "tested" emergency power, they started actually notifying us when tests were planned so we could shut down anything sensitive.

The building I'm in now in my own lab has a lot of problems, but at least our building manager understands these things and emails us to let us know as much as possible before any work that may impact power, hood airflow, steam, water, etc takes place. It's amazing how much more cooperative the researchers are when they ask us about usage patterns before bringing in a ladder and taking down ceiling tiles in front of a vital piece of equipment!

I run a 24/7/365 radio station on a college campus, and I'll tell you, getting to know as many maintenance people and their supervisors as possible is a *good* thing. We've had multi-day power shutdowns happen with no warning, AC turned off, painting & noxious fume problems all because we weren't "supposed" to be there. But I've had a complete turn-around on this by getting friendly with some of the facilities folk and keeping those lines of communication open. The more they know about what you do and how you do it, the more they'll start anticipating how their work will impact yours.