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Blacked out: Crossed wires cause chaos

By Emily Crane
On March 14, 2014

Classrooms, dorms and stoplights went dark as the power went out across Oxford and Miami's campus Wednesday morning, leaving students, faculty and community members sitting in the dark for up to four hours.

Director of Building Maintenance for Miami's physical facilities department Jeremy Davis said the culprit behind the blackout was not the inclement weather but simply an old, faulty insulator on Spring Street near Irvin Drive. Insulators are pieces of hardware that attach power lines to electric poles, Davis explained.

When the insulator broke, one live wire fell onto another in a grand display of sparks and hissing and then poof- lights out all over town.

"When the lines got crossed, they created a short-circuit," Davis said. "And we have a number of security measures in place so that it all shuts down if that happens. Everything did its job and it all tripped out, cutting power everywhere."

While students across campus reached for their smartphones to begin the barrage of #miamiblackout tweets, Miami's physical facilities department leaped into action. Within 45 minutes, they had identified the source of the problem and developed a plan to resolve the issue in coordination with Duke Energy, Miami's energy supplier.

"The equipment that failed was on their end and they made the actual repair," Davis said. "But we worked together collaboratively on the whole thing."

When they realized it might be as long as two hours before power could be restored, the physical facilities department decided to fire up the "peaking" generators near the steam plant on Western Campus and use them to send electricity to keep certain pieces of critical equipment operational.

"A lot of buildings have emergency generators for egress lighting and maybe elevators," Davis said. "But we also have a few really large generators, 'peaking' generators on Western Campus ... that we used to send power to critical buildings like Pearson where they have environmental growth chambers that can't lose power."

Another such building where power was critical was Hughes, home to the NMR 850 mhz magnet, one of the most powerful magnets in the world. Under the supervision of eminent scholar and professor of chemistry and biochemistry Michael Kennedy, students use the two-story magnet to look for early signs of pancreatic cancer. Keeping the magnet powered despite the blackout became Hughes' top priority.

The emergency backup generators kicked in as soon as the power outage began, but the building staff soon realized they would not be sufficient to keep the magnet powered until the physical facilities department was able to divert power to the building from the "peaking" generators.

"When we realized that, we started to mobilize our mobile generators and soon we had power to the building from the 'peaking' generators," Davis said.

Meanwhile, in less critical buildings, staff scrambled to respond to meet student needs despite the blackout. In the Armstrong Student Center, Executive Chef Scott Rous was determined not to let the lack of electricity keep him from serving students their lunch. He and his staff replaced the vegetable bar at the NAME with buckets of ice loaded with a variety of cold sandwiches, fruit cups and bottled beverages.

"Scott also went upstairs to the catering service on the third floor and grabbed chafing dishes and then he ran to Shriver to grab sternos so we could serve hot foot," Food Production Leader Sue Ferris said. "That way we could offer burritos, food from Serranoes and mac and cheese ... It worked out really well."

With the registers out, the staff jotted down students' banner ID numbers to charge them for the food once the power was restored.

Lights began flickering back on around 12 p.m. but it was 2 p.m. before power was fully restored to all buildings on campus. Though the actual repair only took around one hour, the process of switching from the main power supply to the "peaking" generators back to the main power supply took a considerable amount of time as there is a specific sequence that must be followed for safety reasons, Davis said.

The university kept students updated through text messages, emails and tweets, calling on faculty and students to continue their normal schedules as feasible.


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