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July 24, 2003

Building engineers voice concerns about new assignment system

Pitt’s building engineers, critical of a recently implemented system that radically changes their work assignments, have gone public with their concerns.

The 31 engineers, speaking through a group of a half-dozen representatives, said that both safety and efficiency are reduced under the new system implemented March 10 by Pitt’s Office of Facilities Management. That system splits the Pittsburgh campus roughly in half at Fifth Avenue, and divides the engineers into two groups for each zone, with either preventive or reactive maintenance duties for approximately one half of the campus’s 62 buildings.

Ana Guzman, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Management, declined to respond to the engineers’ concerns for this story. In statements this spring to the University Times and the University Senate plant utilization and planning committee after the system was first implemented, Guzman said the new building engineer assignments will mean “a noticeable improvement in the way the building systems operate because there will be a lot more attention to preventive maintenance instead of waiting for things to malfunction and then fixing them. Also, we expect that there will be a much more noticeable higher overall level of service campus-wide,” she said.

Under the former system, dedicated building engineers were responsible for both the operation and preventive maintenance (PM) for all systems (mechanical, heating, utilities, control valves) in a much smaller number of buildings, ordinarily one to five, depending on building size and complexity of equipment.

The engineers claim that familiarity with the buildings is being severely diluted with the new assignments and that new automated systems related to the shift in assignments are full of bugs, leading to potential problems in response time and errors or inefficiencies in service.

In addition, they said, Facilities Management (FM) has not made good on its promise to cross-train the engineers to expedite their conversion to new duties.

The building engineers, who are members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 95, said that they recognized Pitt’s right to institute the new system and were making the best of it.

“We’re making no threats,” said Bill Cagney, IUOE Local 95 business manager and spokesperson. “This isn’t a bunch of whiners here. We’re willing to change, and we’re trying to make this work. We also are committed to doing our jobs and to the safety of our customers. But the system we had, tested and honed over many, many years, we think was working very well.” Should a problem arise as a result of the re-assignments, blame should rest with Facilities Management, he said.

“We don’t think the University community has heard our side of the story about this system,” said engineer Jim Shaffer. “That’s why we [created] a web site to explain our side and to get feedback from the campus on this.”

Shaffer urged University community members to comment on the new building engineers assignments at

According to Shaffer, the building engineers have heard a number of complaints from Pitt employees about the new system’s effectiveness. He added that the engineers plan to pursue their concerns this fall through the appropriate University Senate committees, Faculty Assembly and other University governance groups. The engineers said they were open to meeting with Facilities Management administrators to discuss the concerns.

Among the potential negative consequences of the new system, engineers said, were:

• Delayed response time for maintenance-related problems, including emergencies such as fire or evacuations, when building familiarity is crucial.

• No guarantee that responses to service requests will be handled by the most knowledgeable engineer.

• Under-utility of the dedicated engineers’ long-time experience maintaining building-specific equipment and controls.

According to Cagney, the building engineers were not consulted before the system was implemented and, as a result, incomplete or inaccurate data abound in the newly adopted computer maintenance management system. “We believe in the technology,” Cagney said. “But it’s only as good as the information inputs.”

There also are many remodeling projects underway that are not being recorded, according to engineer Herb Wejner. “If you don’t have a person assigned to the building when you’re putting in a new fan system or new pumps — any new equipment — they’re not going into the computerized database, because nobody’s gathering information on that,” Wejner said.

Under the previous assignments, “the dedicated building engineer would make sure it was on his equipment card, and put into our older system, because any equipment not registered on the equipment card, he’d have to answer for,” said Dom Fagnelli, who was assigned to the Cathedral of Learning for more than 20 years.

“At the Cathedral there’s so much equipment going in, huge pumps, major systems, it’s not ever going to be able to have maintenance, because there’s not a building engineer responsible for the documentation there to do this. It’s not getting in the new system,” Fagnelli said. A further risk, he said, is unsupervised remodeling that ends up blocking maintenance efforts for already installed equipment, such as hard-to-access filters.

The engineers insisted that to master the inner workings of a building takes at least a year.

An engineer at Pitt for 27 years, engineer Bill Herold said that last week he was answering maintenance calls at the Graduate School of Public Health. “I’ve never been in the building before in my life. Even though we’re all well-trained, the fueling system is very complicated; it’s not obvious what to do.”

Herold, who was formerly assigned to Trees Hall, said the promised cross-training consists of tracking down fellow engineers who were formerly assigned to buildings. “When you go to the law school, which used to be Herb’s [Wejner] building, and you can’t figure it out, you’ve got to go to Herb. Of course, Herb’s out doing PM with no phone, no office to go to, and he could be at any of 20-plus buildings.”

Herold also pointed out that an additional level of response results for service requests under the new system. Previously, building occupants could contact the dedicated engineer to fix a problem. “Instead, [Facilities Management] wants that person to call somebody at FM, and that person at FM has to issue a job order and that has to be recorded, and then someone, not necessarily the person most qualified, is sent to the scene,” Herold said.

According to union steward Vince Mazza, what suffers most under the new assignments is the lack of a personal touch of service and commitment to the occupants of the building. “We are very service-oriented by training,” Mazza said. “Regarding preventive maintenance, each guy was responsible for that PM work. He took pride in his building; it was like his home.”

That pride and commitment is dissipating under the new system, the engineers agreed.

In justifying the new assignments, FM Associate Vice Chancellor Guzman told the University Times in April, “When [some of Pitt’s] buildings were built, the building systems had to be started and in many cases operated and adjusted manually and this required the presence of individuals at the building at all times.”

However, she said, with the installation of centralized and state-of-the-art equipment for building systems controls, and a computerized maintenance management system that includes a database of characteristics and maintenance needs of every piece of equipment on campus, dedicated personnel are no longer required. “With the help of this computerized system, we are now able to develop the daily assignments for the building engineers to implement systems maintenance in an organized and systematic manner in all buildings,” she said this spring. Building occupants should not expect any fall-off of service, Guzman maintained.

(See University Times, April 17 and May 15, 2003.)

—Peter Hart

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