Things that go bump in the night: A night at the museums with the third shift

Andrea Martin tags along on the third shift to see what goes on in our museums after hours and learns that to the trained ear, things that go bump in the night may just mean a blown compressor.

Silhouette of worker against pipes

A member of the third shift USRO team takes preventative measures against water damage in an area prone to structural leaks. (Photo by Andrea Martin)

The boilers, air handling units, plumbing, and other systems in our buildings don’t stop working just because the museums are closed, and neither does Smithsonian Facilities. When the museums are empty, a small group of Utility System Repairer Operators from the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability—simply referred to as the Third Shift—gets to work.

The team—currently fewer than 10 people—keeps watch over the various Smithsonian building systems overnight. A few work in pairs, some work alone. Almost all of them cover multiple museums in any given shift. This team represents some of the most experienced and seasoned USRO staff within SF. In fact, most of have been doing this work on this shift for over a decade.

Group photo of team members

The Third Shift USRO Team from left to right: Anthony Dessaso, Dwayne Reed, Aaron Mason, Chau Le, Thomas McMahon, Jason Pickett, Troy Arnold, and Steven Thomas (Supervisor). Not pictured: Salvador Portillo and Lashaun Mitchell (Photo by Andrea Martin)

Recently, to truly understand what the third shift does and more importantly, how they do it, I shadowed the team for a night. It was a unique look at a side of the Smithsonian most people never see.

I arrived at third shift’s home base at the Natural History Museum a bit before their shift started at 11:30 p.m. to talk to Steve Thomas, shift supervisor. He’s been with Smithsonian since 1988 and on the third shift since 2003, working his way up to supervisor. You can tell he enjoys the work and could seamlessly switch gears from talking to me to addressing the job at hand. The second shift was leaving for the night when I arrived. Watching them update Thomas on the status of ongoing tasks was like watching a relay runner hand off a baton. The work never really ends; it moves forward and is reliably passed on to the next team.

I watched as the team walked off into the night to their various duty stations and followed Thomas McMahon across the very quiet and dark National Mall to the South Mall Zone (which includes the Quad, Freer, Castle, Arts and Industries Building and the  Hirshhorn). Since this is his typical beat, he knows it like the back of his hand. McMahon learned the ropes from two other long-time USROs when he began nine years ago.

McMahon poses for camera

USRO Thomas McMahon (Photo by Andrea Martin)

As I followed him down into the Quad area, the security guards said hello. Beyond that, it appeared we were completely alone. But that wasn’t quite the case. McMahon said from there on we wouldn’t be running into anybody, but security would see us. They’re aware of any movements inside the buildings.

We made our way to a machine room, and wound our way to a break room I know I’d never be able to find again. McMahon set up shop and reviewed the second shift logs. He was describing a minor plumbing leak discovered by the second shift when the phone rang. It was someone from the Smithsonian Communications Center alerting McMahon to the  same water issue — they had received a water alert on their monitoring system. While McMahon may have been the only USRO on duty in the Quad that night, he was hardly alone: the SCC, security, and even the second shift  were very much a part of team—even if we never saw them.

Most of my time with McMahon was spent on the watch tour—a specific list of tasks to do and equipment to look at each night. The most important tools on our night watch seemed to be flashlights and cell phones. McMahon was busy checking gauges in dark rooms, illuminating the way down dimly lit corridors, and staying in contact with SCC or other third shift team members.

In preparation for my night with the third shift, I spoke with Daren Kennedy, the Zone Manager responsible for third shift activities.

“We often say that on the third shift, you don’t need fancy tools­—you just need to bring your senses,” Kennedy told me. This rang true as I followed McMahon, who paused to listen to the silence during various points of the watch tour.

It’s eerily quiet in the museums, a valuable tool for the third shift. A loud clank, a weird whine, or grating sounds could all indicate small problems with the potential to grow into much larger issues. The third shift identifies problems, isolates the issue, fixes it if it’s a minor or easy task, or lets first and second shift know the status if a larger fix is required.

We stopped in to check on the Castle water issue identified by second shift.  A hose leading to a small washing machine had started leaking. The second shift’s fix was holding and the leak had stopped. A permanent fix will be required, but that would be handled by first shift.  We also checked on several structural leaks that were identified during the heavy rainstorms of July. Large repairs will need to be scheduled, but the skies were clear this night and all looked well.

Worker checking equipment

USRO Detailed Leader Jason Pickett prepping a check valve before installation on a main steam condensate return line. (Photo by Andrea Martin)

While watch tours are a major part of the shift, routine maintenance also takes place. A faulty valve was scheduled for third shift to fix a steam condensate line from the Castle to NMNH. As we were checking the condensate on the Castle side, McMahon received a call from NMNH alerting him to the fix. Even in separate zones the USROs work as a seamless team.

The third shift are the eyes on the ground, the quick responders, and the people making sure everything is working as it should. As such, emergency response is a big part of what they do.

Most shifts are thankfully, emergency free. But maybe 50 or 60 nights a year, something does go wrong. If it does, the USRO will call their team leader and the SCC. If it’s a bigger job than one or two people can handle, they’ll pull USROs from other museums to help isolate and deal with the emergency.  SCC will monitor the empty museums remotely to prevent security breaches.

My third shift experience ended with the watch tour finished, valve replacement completed, and no emergencies. I regretted not wearing my Fitbit to count the many, many steps I took that night, but was grateful to have seen all that goes into monitoring and maintaining the various systems in our museums. The guys on the shift have a lot of responsibility during a time when most people are fast asleep. Most staff and visitors return to the museums each morning having no idea what might have happened the night before because problems were handled, systems were maintained, and fixes were made. We can (quite literally) rest assured each night knowing that the museums are in good hands.

Andrea Martin is a Communications Specialist in Smithsonian Facilities’ Office of Business and Technical Services. She generally works the day shift.

Posted: 28 September 2018
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