Flooded parking garage after water main burst. Photo Credit: FoxNews.com
Prompt: One of the most under-appreciated engineering jobs out there is that of a facility maintenance engineer. These engineers perform tasks such as making key decisions with regards to retrofitting, repairing or replacing buildings, machines, and other equipments, preparing maintenance schedules based on many machine design principles, electromechanical controls, HVAC systems, etc. (as well as supervising any onsite maintenance). One more duty they often must perform is that of assessing damage and deciding how to move forward in the event of any kind of plant/facility disaster. For example, recently a 100 year old 30 inch water main burst at [a college in California], releasing an estimated 20 million gallons of water, trapping roughly 1,000 cars in flooded parking structures, submerging athletic fields, and flooding basketball courts and other structures. If you were a facilities engineer at [the affected college], what would your top 3 priority considerations be following the incident in terms of evaluation, fixes, safeguards, etc.
1. Vital Utilities
The first priority (after having dispersed search/rescue teams to ensure no one has been trapped or injured) in an event such as this would likely be to verify that the essential facility equipment (power, sewage, phone lines, etc.) have not been damaged. You would want to visit the location of each of these main utility hubs and check for water penetration to vital systems. You would probably want to get the maintenance technicians to immediately begin evaluating and repairing any damage done to electrical circuitry, sewage and potable water systems, and the phone lines as if these systems were to be too negatively affected by the flooding, they could seriously hamper damage control efforts as well as efforts to get the school back in operation.
2. Personal Property
As soon as you have established procedures/progress for keeping (or bringing back) all vital utilities on line, you would want to immediately start taking measures to reduce damage to personal property of the students, faculty, visitors, etc. in order to reduce the amount the school might have to pay in damages. Priorities would include bringing in pumps to drain sub-level parking garages in order to get personal transport vehicles out of the water to prevent corrosion, interior staining, or electrical damage and once again making sure that no people have been trapped, injured, etc. and if they have, then to get emergency responders there ASAP. Once all vital areas and areas with personal property had been cleared, measures would need to be put in place to locate and close the property fire department connection (main shutoff), repair or replace the pipe, and drain/clean up all the water.
3. Site Damage Evaluation
Once the mishap has been cleaned up and all systems have been brought up online, you would need to immediately start in with damage assessment, most notably with respect to structural damage. You would need to tour the property and look for signs of water damage, erosion, mold, weakening of load-bearing structures, electrical switchover damage, damage to any machinery caused either by moisture or incident contact with destructive objects which may have been knocked loose or otherwise dislocated during the initial burst and subsequent period of high water flow.
As can be seen, a great deal of things must be taken into consideration when dealing with any kind of facility disaster and facility engineers are often the ones who are depended on to organize the containment/repair/re-launching efforts in these kinds of situations. These are just a few of the many, many things that a facility engineer would need to consider and it should be noted that what I have listed here is extremely superficial in that these decisions take infinitely more consideration to make.
For example, in this particular incident, one of the major concerns of the facility engineers was with regards to the draining of the parking garages. On one hand, they were worried about the water quality in the garages as the water stagnated there for longer periods of time, since the amount (and therefore concentration) of gasoline and pollutants present in the water was building, creating a possibility for the water to become flammable or explosive, not to mention the consequences of allowing the pollutant concentration in the water to build prior to entering the sewer system; for these reasons, the engineers wanted to drain the garages as quickly as possible. On the other hand, however, the faster and longer the pumps were run in the garages, the more carbon monoxide built up in the garages, creating a whole host of new problems. When you’re a facility engineer, even something as seemingly simple as draining built up water takes on whole new levels of complexity that most people would never even think to consider!
Facility engineers wear a ridiculous number of hats and really are the plant engineering equivalent to the Swiss-army knife. Hopefully after having read this article, you might find a new appreciation for what these engineers do. Thank you for the read and be sure to check back every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for Team UV’s new posts!