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Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

Night-side workers keep KU running despite budget cuts

June 23, 2002

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The lights are off, the doors locked tight.

In this otherwise abandoned building, Josh Wheeler flips a switch on a massive control panel, sending a snapping sound down the empty hallway.

Chuck Shaw, building system technician for Facilities Operation at
Kansas University, changes the ballast of a fluorescent light in a
Fraser Hall office. Shaw works at night, long after the students
have gone home, repairing anything that needs it.

Chuck Shaw, building system technician for Facilities Operation at Kansas University, changes the ballast of a fluorescent light in a Fraser Hall office. Shaw works at night, long after the students have gone home, repairing anything that needs it.

"Now, I just have to wait," said Wheeler, who tonight is running a test of the emergency lights in Moore Hall.

Wheeler works the night shift at Kansas University. Long after most classes have let out for the day and staff members have shut down offices, he tends to the bulbs, generators, air conditioners and 18,000 pieces of mechanical equipment that keep campus running.

He's just been at it a year, but he already knows the buildings he oversees like the back of his hand. And he knows that they wouldn't run so smoothly without him and his colleagues on the night-side crew.

"We're campus after four o'clock," said Wheeler, who's on the job until 10:30 p.m.

He and dozens of the university's more nocturnal employees patrol campus, toting the tools of their trade as afternoon gives way to evening and, for some, as the sun inches above the horizon.

Departments that employ night-shift workers have fallen prey this year to the same budget shortfall plaguing all of KU. Most of Facilities Operations' night crews are running with two men instead of three. A crew of work study students whose sole job was to change campus light bulbs was eliminated. And the security department is down by two employees vacancies that haven't been filled because of cash shortages.

"I've never seen morale so low among classified employees," said Hilde Sartin, one of two night security supervisors for campus.

But she plugs on locking campus buildings, turning out lights, always looking for suspicious activity because she enjoys what she does.

"I like working nights, and I know kind of what to expect," said Sartin, who starts her day at 8:30 p.m. and usually leaves work about 6:30 the next morning. "I don't scare easily."

Under lock and key

It's 10:30 on a Friday night not yet dinnertime for Sartin, who is patrolling campus in a small sports utility vehicle marked "Security."

"That's probably one of our biggest buildings to lock," she says, pausing in front of Fraser Hall. In addition to all the outside doors there are more than a dozen the first two floors are nothing but classrooms, almost all of which have some sort of projector or computer that must be kept under lock and key.

Sartin spends about half of her 10-hour shift driving, half walking. As she rounds a curve behind a warehouse on West Campus, four deer bolt away in the path of her headlights.

"That's nice to see," she says.

She sees a lot of wild animals on the job. Once during her nearly three years with campus security, she turned a corner in Haworth Hall and came face-to-face with a live possum.

"I thought it was the guys playing a prank on me," she says. "I was first thinking, 'Is he stuffed or not?' because he tried to play dead. But then I saw his eyes blinking."

As Sartin drives into the parking lot at the KU Public Safety Office, her thoughts turn to the fact that her department is running with seven employees instead of nine.

"When you have people doing double routes, they can't get through them as quickly," she says. "And they keep adding onto campus. ... I'm kind of still hoping that we get both positions back. It's such an uncertainty."

Security employees are responsible for monitoring 76 campus buildings 4.5 million square feet, said John Mullens, assistant director of public safety and head of the security and emergency planning unit.

Last line of defense

Don Bahnmaier is no stranger to many of those buildings. A buildings system technician on the facilities operations p.m. crew, the 32-year KU veteran has replaced light bulbs, greased bearings, repaired air conditioners, rescued people stuck in campus elevators "anything under the sun," he said.

"We take care of just about any kind of job there is up here. That's one thing that gives us a certain amount of pride. We can and will do anything we're called to do."

Like Wheeler, Bahnmaier is on the clock from 1:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

"It doesn't really pay that great, but the benefits are good. I like working nights," said Bahnmaier, 50. "You don't have as many people running around."

Unfortunately, he said, that shortage extends to the work force.

"We're losing people. I've been working by myself for three months now," he said. "It's getting tougher on us. It seems like we always have to do more."

Budget cuts have been felt in the housekeeping department as well. Although no custodial positions have been cut, the department had to reduce to two the number of days each week its employees could clean campus offices. Second shift for custodial staff runs from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.; third shift is from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., said Lorene Damewood, assistant director of housekeeping.

Because all these night-shift employees do much of their work under a cover of darkness, their contribution to campus too often goes unrecognized, said Russ Buchholz, assistant director of preventive maintenance for Facilities Operations.

"They're part of the campus community that's vital. They're a first line of defense against storms and mechanical disasters and other things that happen at night and on weekends," he said. "There's an awful lot of people involved up here. It takes pieces and parts of us all to keep it going."

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