Help! It’s raining on me at my desk

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday. You’re in your office wrapping up an important project when suddenly water rains down from the ceiling above.

If you’re smart, you pick up the phone and dial 215-898-7208 or else you hop on your computer, assuming it’s out of the line of fire, and send an e-mail to workreq@pobox.upenn.edu.

An agent answers your call, puts in a work ticket and dispatches the request to the appropriate building operations manager.

What you’ve just done is connect to the Call Center, managed by Kris Kealey and her team of five. Together they make up just one of four key components of the University’s Operations Center. The other three—the Control Room, Utility Operations/Maintenance and Operations Engineering—make up the rest.

And good thing for you that the Operations Center never sleeps— at least not the Control Room, the center’s technical hub that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of holidays and University breaks.

Designed to provide the Penn community a single point of contact to Facilities, the Operations Center is just one of several zones that make up the school’s Facilities structure.

“We are a part of a larger organization within Facilities, and we are a support group of Facilities,” explained Director of Central Services Michael Coleman.

With an institution as big as Penn, you can bet that it takes massive coordination to make sure that taken-for-granted things, such as lights, thermostats and toilets, are working properly.

“There are a lot of little gears and pieces that mesh and have to happen every day for all these things to connect,” said Coleman. “It’s very important that communications, coordination and procedures are in place. If not, then things fall through cracks very simply. What you’re doing is running an organization where meetings serve as a baton.”

Gerry McGillian, utilities operation manager, knows the scale of coordination that’s needed. He starts each day with an operations meeting in which he and his team survey a running list of maintenance chores. They assess various pieces of equipment, from chillers to radiators, that need attention.

To keep track of things like building temperatures in research laboratories, fire alarms and biological growth in Penn’s chilled-water system, McGillian and his team rely on a computer-based system called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. Better known as SCADA, the system allows remote access to a vast array of computer systems that control buildings around campus.

SCADA is wired to 86 campus buildings. Alarms, ranging from an audible beep to a flashing icon on the computer, alert staff to equipment that needs attention.

And if you’re concerned about the Operation Center’s ability to respond promptly to emergencies, rest assured.

The physical layout of its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) allows Facilities to mobilize quickly during extreme situations, such as severe weather conditions, a fire and Sept. 11. The EOC is sandwiched between the Control Room and Call Center and divided from them with sliding glass doors. That physical layout places the EOC between system and control to its left and communication with customers to its right.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it takes to run a mini-city like Penn you need only drop by the Operations Center located in the Left Bank—you can even request a tour via workreq@pobox.upenn.edu.

Originally published on December 13, 2001