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The Ins and Outs of the Outage: An Interview with Ralph Thayer and Bill Maguire

in Campus Journal by

When the power went out last Thursday for the second time in three weeks and the student body funneled into generator-powered Sharples, clustering around the scarce outlets and eating waffles through the evening to quell a rising sense that the world is fundamentally unpredictable, Director of Maintenance Ralph Thayer’s emails shone through the darkness like a beacon of calm competency.


“At 5:15PM one of the just repaired feeders from Morton blew out casting the campus into darkness once again,” he wrote in an email with the resigned subject heading, “Another Outage.” “There is a second feeder on the south side of campus in a vault on Chester Road but that vault has to be pumped free of water in order to throw the switch.”


He didn’t pull any punches or try to hide setbacks, writing in a second update, “As a point of information we are still waiting for the pump truck to pump out the vault.  It is not on site. We have been told the pump truck has been dispatched but do not know its estimated time of arrival. I’ll let you know when it does. Hopefully we can get the power on within the next couple of hours.”


I wasn’t precisely sure what a feeder was, and the mental image of important electrical equipment submerged in an watery vault was not a comforting one, but I felt certain that Thayer was managing the situation with aplomb, and that whatever happened, he would keep us in the loop.


With the lights back on and life returned to normal, I was curious about what it takes to power Swarthmore. Recently, I sat down to talk with Thayer and Bill Maguire, Maintenance Manager, about the recent outages and their day-to-day experience of keeping the college running.


Both men have worked at Swarthmore for over 25 years, and seemed unsurprised by any problems that the college could throw at them.


When asked if there was any issue that was particularly difficult for them to solve in the last outage, Thayer replied, “It’s not tricky for us, we get too much practice – that’s the problem.”


However, Maguire added that securing generators can be challenging  – wait too long to order one and they run out locally, delaying the restoration of power until other generators can be shipped in from out of state.


“That’s not something you want in the wintertime,” said Thayer. “Overnight with no power? Not good. Students get cranky – they want hot water, heat, lights. Kids these days.”


That means that responding quickly is key, but judging the duration of the outage (and therefore what kind of response is needed) can be difficult.


“The first step is making a snap decision,” said Thayer. “Are these lights going to be out for a minute, or are they going to be out for a day, or are they going to be out for a week? And that’s a tough call to make, it’s really based a lot on what you hear about the weather, presuming it’s a weather event that caused the outage.”


This seems to generally be the case  – outages tend to come from PECO’s above-ground electric lines being taken down by trees or from cars hitting utility poles.


“Their lines run so much distance,” said Maguire. “There’s one feeder that goes up Cedar Lane, runs through the neighborhoods, gets out onto Baltimore Pike, and goes all the way to almost Media. That’s their biggest challenge, because of the big trees in this area.”


When asked if there are any particular difficulties to managing Swarthmore’s power and heating, or problems with the age of buildings, Thayer had few complaints.


“Sure, we’ve got old buildings, but they’re adequate. They’re not necessarily the most efficient buildings, but there’s something to be said for their ruggedness. It’s the Soviet style of, ‘it works.’ You can hit it with a hammer and it’ll start working again. With most of the newer buildings, it’s finely-tuned technologies that tend to be more problematic.”

Maguire said that handling the complexity of the Science Center after an outage can be difficult.


“There’s a lot of systems to restore to normal up there,” he said.


However, predicting the weather has become increasingly challenging, which makes deciding when to switch from heating to cooling an issue.


“I would say there’s been a fairly dramatic change in the last ten years,” said Thayer, when asked if he has seen alterations in weather patterns since he began working at the college. “The shoulder season, the season between the heating season and the cooling season, is definitely longer. It seems like it’s longer in the fall, so you get more summertime weather, and it gets weird in the spring, because you’ll have these spurts of warm days like we had in February, and then March has been much colder, probably 10-20 degrees colder than it normally is. It’s supposed to be up to 70 by the weekend, and who knows what’ll happen in April. I’ve been tracking the degree days for years, and it’s been one of the warmest years so far. It’s really weather weirding – the patterns are gone. It’s not an easy thing to predict anymore.”


I asked what a regular day at work entails for both of them, but given that their job description is essentially handling complaints and crises of various magnitudes, such a question proved impossible to answer.


“It can be anything,” said Maguire. “Right now we have a water main break down at the train station, so we have crews down repairing that. We do 10,000 work orders a year so it’s constantly work. As real problems come in or emergencies come in, we assign different crews to these emergencies. There’s always something like that, it just depends how severe.”

“A lot of it’s just day to day,” said Thayer. “Routine maintenance, clogged toilets, lightbulbs out, place needs painting, that sort of thing. A lot of it’s fairly mundane.”


“But there are those days,” added Maguire ruefully.  

Wrapping up, I expressed my enthusiasm for Thayer’s emails, and Maguire seemed to know immediately what I was talking about.


“Ralph is our staff writer,” he said. “He’s good at that.”

“I think it’s important when something happens that people aren’t guessing about what happened and why,” said Thayer. “Even though I don’t always have the answers about when the power’s going to come back on, at least people can be informed about what our findings are, so they can get a sense that it’s being paid attention to. It’s important that people know as much as we know.”


I mentioned enjoying the seasonal updates that Thayer sends out regarding heating and air-conditioning (such as one from 2014 with the subject heading, “The Swing Season” that began with the lines, “Not playground, not that music from the 1940’s and certainly not the
questionable social behavior from the 70’s. I’m talking weather”).

“That is not new for Ralph,” said Maguire. “He’s done that for years.”

“They probably have all my writing in the historical library,” Thayer added.


Thayer insisted that most of the credit for handling the outages should go to the Maintenance crew who were working in the field after hours and on weekends, so I will conclude with thanks to them (and to the Sharples staff), but also to our Director for giving us a sense of what it takes to keep things running.


Thank you to those who keep Swarthmore going

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

In the past week we’ve experienced more snow than Swarthmore has seen in the past three months. As we all began to mentally prepare ourselves for spring break, it managed to get the coldest it has been all year. Friday’s winter storm damaged power lines, cutting off the power to the college and the majority of homes and business in the Swarthmore area. Massive trees fell near Willets, in front of PPR, and many other trees went down campus. Power was not restored to campus until around 9 p.m. on Friday, powered by a generator. PECO power was partially restored on Wednesday.

Yet Winter Storm Riley was a powerful reminder of the amazing and supportive community which we are a part of here at Swarthmore. As students gathered in Sharples, the only building with power on Friday evening, the atmosphere was not one of dread, but of liveliness and fun. Students were taking advantage of the power outage by coming together through playing cards, enjoying games, and engaging in light-hearted conversation. The outage became a cause for unity rather than frustration. We at the Phoenix are honored to be a part of such a compassionate, encouraging community.

We also recognize that this compassionate, encouraging community is not just created by the students. The gathering in Sharples on Friday night, the quick restoration of power, and the vibrant energy on campus wouldn’t have been possible without the staff and faculty that devoted themselves to ensuring a positive experience for students.

We want to express our appreciation for all of the staff and faculty who kept the campus running for us despite the lack of power at their homes, the icy roads, and the fallen trees and power lines.

Thank you to all of the Sharples staff who continued to provide us with food and a welcoming place to sit, charge our phones and computers, and spend time as a community despite the crazy weather. They came in and had the same upbeat attitude they always have while greeting students each and every day.

Thank you to facilities for working tirelessly to connect campus back to power in only five hours on Friday night, while nearly everywhere else in the area remained without power. It is impossible to express enough gratitude for keeping us connected to the generators throughout the weekend, even switching out the generators over the weekend to ensure campus remained provided with electricity. We are grateful for Ralph Thayer, director of facilities, for keeping students updated on the process through email chains and for making the switch to generator power as seamless as possible.

We are immensely grateful to the facilities staff and arboretum workers who gave their time to shovel snow and clear paths in the storm so that we students could safely navigate campus. We are aware that these workers have even more work ahead of them as they clean up fallen trees and other damage from the storm. They are extraordinary for the effort they exert every day just to keep campus functioning and beautiful.

Finally, thank you to all the professors, living in and out of the town of Swarthmore, that have powered through the damage brought by Riley, coming on to the campus to continue to teach despite the rough conditions and lack of power.

We at The Phoenix have written many articles which criticize and hold various divisions of the college accountable. However, we also recognize the importance of showing gratitude for the people and services we take for granted everyday both those classified as “essential” in the emails, and those who simply improve the lives of students everyday. In the context of this storm, we cannot express how much we appreciate and recognize the hard work that came from all the staff that keep the college running. Swarthmore has room for a lot of improvement but this storm has demonstrated and made us ever more grateful for the staff who work tirelessly to make Swarthmore a place where students, faculty, and staff can find a dedicated and hardworking community of people.

Winter Storm Riley wreaks havoc on and off campus

in News by

Students were caught by surprise on Friday when a nor’easter tore through the region. The snowstorm left the campus and Ville without power for several days and did significant damage to the arboretum.

Winter Storm Riley caused outages all along the East Coast. PECO, the electric company that services most of southeastern Pennsylvania including Swarthmore, was reporting more than 850,000 outages. SEPTA was completely shut down from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, and roads were covered in snow and tree branches.

The power went out at around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Director of Maintenance Ralph Thayer sent out increasingly frequent email dispatches, including one email urging students to avoid taking elevators due to reported outages.

Sharples was the only building on campus with power during the storm. Students crowded into all rooms of the dining hall, many jockeying to get a spot at one of the few power outlets. Some students even brought a TV to Sharples and played Super Smash Bros.

“It was loud,” said Malini Kohli ’20. “It was a lot of people together …  It was cool.”

Sharples stayed open until 10:30 p.m., with staff from Essie Mae’s taking over for the later hours. Beth Klein, a Sharples employee, remembered the environment in Sharples fondly.

“That was a really cool night,” Klein said. “It wasn’t like I felt like I had to sit here and swipe cards, like monotonously boring. I felt like we’re all here together in this. I felt like part of a team.”

Though Klein’s house had lost power and she had to brave a treacherous drive home, she found enjoyment in the experience.

“I could have looked at it as, ‘Oh my God, this sucks and I’m nervous to drive,’ but I looked at it as an adventure the whole night,” Klein said.  “I’m a people person, so I was looking around, seeing what people were doing. They were playing cards. I like that better than before, [when] I’d be stressed with anxiety just sitting here doing the same thing over and over.”

Klein felt that the power outage was a powerful bonding experience for students and staff alike.

“I could see why everybody bonded last night. We just worked it out all together,” she said.

The maintenance department rushed to get a rental generator on campus. They restored power on campus via the generator late on Friday night.

Although the snow had completely melted by Saturday afternoon, the storm’s aftermath was felt throughout campus.

The wind tore down several trees around campus, including the massive Class of 1876 bur oak near Willets. Josh Coceano, a horticulturist at the Scott Arboretum, expressed sorrow when talking about the class tree, describing it as his favorite.

Coceano said that he hoped the tree would be cleared by later this week. He also encouraged students to stay out of the Crum, where there are several downed trees.

Veronica Douglan ’19, who works as an assistant at the Scott Arboretum, was deeply emotional about the damage inflicted by the storm.

“I noticed that the one in front of Ashton [House] that was just huge and just went all the way across the road,” she said. “I started feeling really sad because [the fallen trees] are old. I don’t think I would feel sad if a short tree fell or a skinny tree, but the really fat ones that literally dedicated their entire lives to just living, just falling because of the stupid wind, it kind of pissed me off and made me sad … Now they’re never gonna grow back. They’re gone forever.”

Many houses and businesses in Swarthmore borough had no power for most of the weekend. The Swarthmore Co-Op was hit particularly hard by the outage.

“On Friday night at about 7:30 or so, in the middle of that storm we had, the power went out here in Swarthmore and we did not have power restored here until 5:30 on Saturday evening, which is about 22 hours without refrigeration,” Co-Op Manager Mike Litka said. “And with that being said, there’s health code rules and regulations about how long food can be kept out of a temperature range. Regretfully, because of the power outage we had to dispose of our perishable good inventory.”

On Sunday, the Co-Op Facebook page put out a call to community members asking for help cleaning out perishable goods.

As a community owned business, any help you could provide to the staff to quicken this heavy task would be appreciated,” read the post. “Please come on in and show your Co-op spirit.”

According to Litka, several volunteers turned out on Sunday to clear out perishables. The Co-Op reopened on Monday, but the shelves in the dairy and freezer aisles were almost completely bare. Litka confirmed that the store would be 80 percent restocked by Friday.

“At this point we’re still calculating [the losses],” Litka said. “It was a catastrophic loss … The Co-Op is hanging in there. We are a small independent business. We are still struggling against the big guys still … We’re holding together. Thankfully, we do have insurance to cover the cost of this event, but it is catastrophic.”

PECO has gradually restored power to campus and the Ville throughout the week. On Wednesday, Thayer sent an all-campus email on Wednesday reporting that PECO had repaired one feeder to campus, and that generator power would be disengaged on Thursday morning.

However, not everyone is back on the grid. Students who live off campus in the Barn have not had power since the storm and have been provided emergency housing by the college.

Thayer thanked maintenance staff who worked to connect the generators.
We are indebted to them and the crew who gave up their nights and weekend to keep the lights on,” he wrote.

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