UW News

March 2, 2006

Calm heads prevail at Facilities Services’ Communications Center

Nina Butorac and Cindy Guadiz’s work involves going from one crisis to another. In a typical day they will field hundreds of phone calls from people stuck in elevators, or dealing with serious water leaks, or confronting a sudden power outage. Some calls will be routine problems and others emergencies, but in every case it’s their job to remain calm and to get help where it’s needed as soon as possible.

Sound nerve-wracking? They thrive on it. Butorac has been on the job for 17 years, Guadiz for nine (after a four-year stint elsewhere on campus). Together they’re part of Facilities Services’ Communications Center, a cluttered suite of rooms in the Plant Operations Building where they receive calls and dispatch appropriate assistance. Butorac is the manager, Guadiz the communications coordinator.

“It’s kind of the hub of where things happen,” Butorac says of the center. “It’s never boring. In 10 seconds we could have a power bump and every fire alarm on campus would go off.”

“You have to be prepared for feast or famine on the job,” Guadiz adds, “but there’s always something to do.”

When you call the service emergency number, 685-1411, the Communications Center is where it rings. It’s answered from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; after that it’s forwarded to the UW Police. For routine problems, people are encouraged to call their zone’s work order desk or submit a request online. However, the Communications Center staff receives many of these calls as well. The emergency calls they take care of themselves.

Got a pipe spewing water? They’ll find you a plumber. Got shingles flying off the roof? They’ll find you a roofer. Got a power outage? They’ll find you an electrician. Redundancy is the name of the game at the Communications Center. Staff have many ways to contact repair people. There’s a VHF radio, office phones, cell phones and pagers. They have a status board that tells them who is working which shift and where they are working.

“If I can’t get hold of a tradesperson, I go to the lead, then the manager,” Guadiz said. “We go all the way to the top if we have to.”

Of course, working on a desk like this one can lead to some unusual conversations. Guadiz once received a call from a woman in an elevator. She had been transporting a typewriter to be surplused and didn’t secure the cord, which got stuck in the elevator doors. As the elevator went down, the typewriter went up.

“She called and said ‘I don’t know if I’m going to survive this,'” Guadiz said.

As it turned out, the elevator doors opened and the typewriter crashed to the floor. The woman was fine but the typewriter wasn’t.

Butorac described a call from an obviously claustrophobic person stuck in an elevator

“I was trying to calm the person down and assure him that just because the elevator isn’t moving doesn’t mean it’s going to fall,” Butorac said. “I told him he was safe, that our people were on the way, which they were. I don’t think it was more than five minutes, but I’m sure it seemed like forever to him.”

The most memorable experience for both staffers, however, was the Nisqually earthquake of 2001. Calls were coming in and Guadiz was trying to answer them, but Butorac was telling her she needed to get under her desk for protection.

As soon as the shaking stopped, both knew they had to vacate the building. “We located our van — which is set up with a 45-watt radio — and we took our laptops and our cell phones and our lists of phone numbers and drove up to Drumheller Fountain, where we proceeded to dispatch from the van,” Butorac said.

The plan worked fairly well, except that the cell phones they were using had unpublished numbers, so they were receiving calls from their regular number, which they’d rerouted through the UW Police. The experience taught them a lesson.

“We decided what we really needed was a place to go where we can actually plug in our telephone set,” Butorac said. “So we built a telephone pedestal up by McMahon Hall and we have a phone set configured just like those in the communications center so the buttons are all in the same place. We have emergency power, we have an ethernet connection and an ECS phone (emergency lines set up by Computing & Communications). We can drive the van up there, plug in our phone system and be good to go. Now, in a similar emergency, we could get the phone calls without overwhelming the police. We’re pretty happy about that.”

In campuswide emergencies like the earthquake, the UW Emergency Operations Center is activated, with representatives from Facilities Services reporting there and helping to coordinate. The Communications Center becomes the unit response center for Facilities Services

Butorac said the Communications Center has been working hard to build up the integrity of its VHF radio system through some grants from the Department of Homeland Security. One such grant was used to build a voice over IP (Intenet protocal) repeater system in the basement of the Health Sciences Center, which enables radio voice transmissions over the Internet. A current grant will do the same for the tunnels and underground mechanical rooms.

“With those systems we’ll be able to cover some of the dead (in terms of communication) areas that have been plaguing us for so many years,” Butorac said.

Butorac and Guadiz are part of a five-person staff, all cross-trained so they can do each other’s jobs. Butorac said she looks for people who are creative and flexible, able to think on their feet and make good decisions.

Guadiz said with a laugh that she had prior “training” for the job as the mother of three children. Which is sort of why she finds the job satisfying. “I’ve always been the caretaker, the one who makes sure everything is running smoothly,” she said. “I’m just the mother bear, I guess.”

And Butorac added, “Getting through a crisis with everybody safe — that in itself is satisfying.”