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January 21, 1999

Downed computers, leaking roofs legacy at Pitt of winter storms

Because Pittsburgh has enjoyed mild winters the past couple of years, Pitt has not had to deal with the kinds of problems it experienced during the recent ice storms: facilities damage, computer shut-downs, canceled classes and the like.

The most severe damage resulted from a power outage mid-afternoon Jan. 14 at RIDC Park, where Pitt's mainframe computers are housed. Most computer services were down for about 15 hours, with power restored at 8 a.m. on Jan. 15. Water from a leaky ceiling damaged Pitt's Uninterruptible Power Source (UPS) unit, which ordinarily acts as the back-up system for mainframe failure, according to Maurice Gordon, Computing and Information Services systems and networks director.

"In a nutshell, we had a complete power outage and the damage was significant. All of our systems went down in what we call an 'uncontrolled situation,'" Gordon said. "Normally, an outage automatically internally switches over power to the UPS, which is battery-controlled. In this case, the system's brains were fried," he said.

Gordon said he knew of no significant data loss as a result of the crash. "On our systems, when power is restored, normally they re-build themselves, which takes a little time and is inconvenient. But some of the systems have to be re-built from scratch and that's time consuming and can be expensive. We're still in the process of doing that now," he said.

Gordon estimated that by Jan. 25 Pitt's systems will be restored to pre-storm conditions. He added that the UPS unit had been scheduled before the storm for battery replacement, which should be completed by the end of January. "The replacement batteries are being shipped now. Even though, from a user's point of view, everything should be working fine by [Jan. 25], I won't be completely satisfied until the batteries are replaced, because that is the designed protection system that Pitt says it needs. Assuming all the right parts are shipped and all goes smoothly, we should be copacetic by the end of the month," Gordon said.

Other problems caused by the frozen conditions included a partially collapsed roof at the University Child Development Center on Clyde Street, which ruined the building's front lobby, and water main breaks near the Eureka Building and on University Drive near the site of what was Pennsylvania Hall.

Lewis Brower, Facilities Management director of maintenance and operations, said, "A section of the ceiling at the Child Development Center fell through as a result of roof damage from the storm." He said workers prevented more damage by dealing with the situation over the weekend of Jan. 16-17. "We managed to bring in inspectors who directed the water [resulting from the thaw] to less damaging places. We were collecting water in pails; we had portable heaters to help melt the ice and were carrying chunks of it out of the building," Brower said. With the thaw, workers were able to spot an obvious crack in the roof membrane, which was patched. "We've had small leaks there in recent months, and the roof will be replaced this spring or summer," Brower said.

Some 19 leaks campus-wide were reported, he said. "Overall, my hat is off to the community for the response to the storm and the cooperation people showed. The plumbers on our staff helped, our grounds crew [helped]; Purchasing got us the salt we needed. I can say that we already have used more salt by far than we have the last two winters combined." Brower said the University hired an outside contractor, Cuddy Roofing, which sent engineers around campus over the weekend to check for leaks and potential leaks and to aid Facilities Management staff. He said it was too early to assess monetary damage, but that it was significant. The University canceled morning classes Jan. 15, but Pitt, as an institution, remained open. Ken Service, director of News and Information, alerts the media if the chancellor authorizes a major change in daily operations. (See sidebar for a condensed version of Pitt's inclement weather policy.) "It's a very rare occurrence that the University closes or cancels classes," Service said. "In this case, the chancellor let me know about 6 a.m. I got the information to the media as soon as I could." Service also said that efforts will be made in the future to alert the staff of Pitt's TELEFACT (624-3228), the phone information service operated by the Office of Student Activities.

Joyce Giangarlo, associate director of Student Activities, said TELEFACT's normal hours are noon to 9 p.m., but that in case of an emergency, student staff members will be available to alert callers to cancellations and closings.

Service also said consideration would be given to creating Audix messages to alert the University community of weather-related changes.

–Peter Hart n

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