Operations: A way of life

On July 23, current and former operators celebrated 40 years of operations. Photo: Reidar Hahn

A steady, consistent beep is the soundtrack of the Main Control Room in Fermilab’s accelerator complex. The metronomic resonance, not unlike a submarine, is reassuring to those who know it best: The operators. The regular tone signals that all is well with the 10 accelerators maintained, and often improved, by the Accelerator Division at Fermilab. But when the monotonous pitch is interrupted by any one of several alerts, the operators leap into action – even in the middle of the night.

Operators – the men and women who keep the accelerators running – work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Four crews rotate through three shifts every weekday, with two 12-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday. The weekday shifts are split into day, evening and owl. Every shift is different.

At the basic understanding of their job, operators run the accelerators. But it goes further than that. Not only do they send beam to whichever experiment needs it at the moment, they also provide constant care for the accelerators. The accelerators can be brought down by storms, heat, electrical surges and even frogs.

Operators work in unique conditions. They’re often the first to know that there’s a problem with an accelerator, and they’re often the first to propose a solution.

“We’re the first line of defense, the skin,” Duane Newhart, the Deputy Head of Accelerator Operations, said. “We have to logically respond to problems, while dealing with a variety of personalities, often in the middle of the night.”

In the 15 years that Newhart has worked in Operations at Fermilab, he said not a day has been the same. He recalled how one operator handled a particularly difficult mystery.

“Duane Plant once investigated this TeV ramp trip that kept happening, but it’d move forward 3 to 5 minutes every week,” Newhart said.

Plant found that a service van would drive by around that time. The sun reflected off of the van’s windows, bounced to the service building, hit the photocell on the dump switch, and then the switch would open, causing the ramp to trip off.

“Not only is it amazing to see how people solve these problems, but it’s also incredible to see all of these different people working together,” said Michael Backfish, Operator II. “I’ve seen people on all sides work together for science.”

The pressure can be intense, but the operators know how to alleviate their stress with a little good-natured fun.

“We played a few practical jokes back in the day,” Paul Czarapata, the Deputy Division Head and former Meson Crew Chief, said. “There was a tech who was crazy about keeping his tools secure and had a desk with an elaborate locking mechanism.”

One day, several operators jimmied the lock, removed the tools and put on innocent faces.

“The guy was flustered,” Czarapata said. “He thought it was funny, too, once we pointed out his tools sitting safely in the corner.”

They have fun playing pranks on each other, but the operators can become very serious, very quickly.

“We have fun, but it just takes one alarm to make everyone focus,” Newhart said. “We go from laughing to serious in a second.”

Despite the strange hours and unpredictable work day, or in some cases it’s because of these things, there’s an excitement in operations.

“You get to watch what happen,” said Bob Mau, the former Operations Department head. He’s now retired. “You get to go everywhere and see a little bit of everything.”

All of that on-the-job training gives operators exposure to the rest of the laboratory and the variety of jobs therein. Mau said that a former operator can be found in nearly every division and section.

“Most operators are hired right out of school. They’re trying to figure out what they want to do,” Mau said. “In operations, they learn the complex. It’s a great spring board for people to find what they’re really interested in.”

Regardless of where they end up, operations becomes a part of who they are.

On July 23, hundreds of Fermilab operators gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Operations. Current employees, retirees and their spouses and children shared stories over a potluck picnic and barbeque. “There are people here that I haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years,” Mau said. “It’s nice to see that these people thought enough of their early jobs to travel all this way.”

“In operations, you become a bit of a family,” Jim Morgan, an engineering physicist, said. “Everyone is always in each other’s face, and we take all of the good and all of the bad. We’re close.”

There are often differences that need to be navigated, but operators are tied together in pursuit of the common goal to make the accelerators work.

“Operations is our opportunity to contribute to something bigger,” Dave Capista, an engineering physicist with the Main Injector Department, said. “It’s our chance to contribute to science.”

Ashley WennersHerron