How stellar teamwork prevented a catastrophe during Guggenheim Building power outage

A potentially catastrophic crisis quickly emerged when the power went out in the Guggenheim Building in Rochester on Feb. 25. Teams from Research, Facilities, Safety and Security quickly jumped into action to avert a disaster.

When Al Dalbello's phone rang at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, he was about to go to the gym. His plans quickly changed. And he spent the next 15 hours coordinating the feverish response to a major power outage that threatened the work of many years and millions of dollars worth of research.

It was Dalbello's turn to lead the Healthcare Incident Command System team, or HICS, as incident commander. The team jumps into action when Mayo operations are interrupted and emergency resources are needed to return to normal operations.

Al Dalbello

The message Dalbello received from Ryan Eastman — the administrator on call that morning — spelled trouble: A water leak on the 18th floor of the Guggenheim Building burned out an electrical bus duct on the 13th floor, leaving the building without power from the 12th floor up.

"I was hoping it would be an easy fix since Facilities was already on-site," Dalbello says. "But after considering the occupants of the building and the potential risk and impact, I quickly decided to activate HICS."

Dalbello knew a power outage in Guggenheim could have grave consequences.

The building is home to an array of laboratories and hundreds of research staff studying everything from mechanisms of stem cell aging to viral gene therapies. Without power in the top 10 floors — and no operating HVAC systems — much of that research was now in jeopardy as hundreds of freezers and refrigerators quickly began to overheat, and other equipment stopped working.

Ominous text message

Hilary Blair still remembers the text message from Meredie Sexton, Emergency Management, at 7:07 a.m. that day.

"Good Morning. Are you aware of the Gugg Issue?" the message read.

"The initial dread for me was when we didn't know if we'd get HVAC back up the same day. I knew freezer rooms were already hot at that point," Blair says.

This was déjà vu for Blair, an operations administrator in Research Administrative Services. She lived through a similar scenario in 2019 when the Guggenheim Building's air handlers froze up during a polar vortex and disabled the HVAC system.

This time, the scenario was frighteningly similar, especially when word came that the HVAC system was suddenly out in the entire building.

"That was the moment when 'catastrophic' truly came to mind and 'oh no, not again,'" Blair says. "My voice may have cracked on the HICS call as it was sinking in."

On Blair's mind were irreplaceable samples and reagents from decades of research at Mayo Clinic. She immediately contacted other Research colleagues to assess the next steps.

Race against time

Meanwhile, Nick Queensland, unit head in Facilities Operations, juggled his time between staying in touch with his teams at Guggenheim and providing updates to the Healthcare Incident Command System team, which met via Zoom.

While crews quickly stopped the water leak, the aftereffects worsened by the minute.

The list of systems that went dark grew rapidly and included lights, elevators and access identification card readers. Just about every piece of equipment that runs on electricity was now offline. Those that did have power couldn't be controlled.

Queensland directed the all-out Facilities response with assistance from Joe Schneider and Daryl Felt. More than 50 Facilities staff and contractors descended on the Guggenheim Building to begin a race against time.

"Our priority was to get the HVAC equipment back up and running as soon as possible to move air through the building," Schneider says.

While Queensland's team focused on keeping freezers and refrigerators from overheating, a Safety team was also on hand to keep Research staff out of harm's way.

Water from the 18th floor caused an electrical bus duct on the 13th floor to burn out.

Prioritizing staff safety

Even on a Sunday, staff were in the building or would be arriving soon.

That posed a concern for Matt Austin, who joined the virtual HICS meetings as Safety Officer. Austin worked with Russel Sinor, an industrial hygienist, and Carl Freyholtz, a safety coordinator, who responded to Guggenheim to comb through the building and address potential safety concerns.

"We focused on ensuring that chemical fume hood sashes and chemical cabinets were closed. We looked for obvious safety hazards, and talked with the staff in the building to ensure they understood the potential hazards and that Security was aware of their location in the event of an emergency," Sinor says. 

With elevators not working, anyone responding to the crisis had to reach the building's 21 floors on foot.

"We had to go up and down several times to various floors," Freyholtz says. The building was pretty dark, and we spent a lot of time in the stairwells."

While reaching any floor by walking hundreds of stairs was one thing, gaining access to a floor was another. With card readers not working, Security officers had to be on standby to open doors.

"Due to the nature of the items on the floors, we had to ensure the only people entering had authorization to be there," says Missie Zwiefelhofer, senior manager, Security Operations. "Our teams also had to manually unlock individual lab doors for researchers to assess the status of their research materials and equipment."

With additional unsecured entry points on each floor, security officers were also assigned to patrol floors continually.

"In addition to checking access approval for staff on the floor, officers also monitored temperature changes in each of the rooms," Zwiefelhofer says.

At one point, her team got stretched even thinner when more officers were needed to stand "fire watch" because the fire system at Guggenheim was also offline.

In many ways, the Security Team was the last defense. Many members reported walking up to 30,000 steps that day.

Preparing for the worst-case scenario

While the Guggenheim Building continued to fill with teams from Facilities, Safety and Security, Blair and Amy Davis, Midwest vice chair, Research Administration, worked feverishly on finding ways to communicate with Research staff who would be affected by the crisis.

"We knew they wouldn't all be checking email on a Sunday, so our teams were texting and calling our scientists and supervisors individually," Davis says. "Once our staff were aware and engaged, we could use email for updates."

At the same time, Blair and Davis tried to plan for a worst-case scenario. If the HVAC system wasn't going to come back online anytime soon, hundreds of freezers would have to be moved out of the building to prevent equipment failures.

By early afternoon, they were able to identify a secure location, but getting the freezers there was going to be another challenge. Elevators were offline and only a small number of freezers would fit on a rented truck for one trip at a time.

Blair decided that if things didn't improve by 3 p.m., the plan, however complicated, would have to be set in motion.

Teams responding to the crisis had to reach the building's 21 floors through the stairwells.

Glimmers of hope

Around 1 p.m., there was a glimmer of hope. Facilities teams found a way to restore temporary power to the HVAC system controls, which meant that air — and optimism — began to flow again.

"When we learned that there was a solution to reverse the rising temperatures, I felt like I could breathe again," Davis says.

The picture improved steadily, and by mid-afternoon, Facilities teams were also able to bypass the damaged bus duct and gradually bring the entire building back online. Blair and Davis never had to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action. The crisis was averted.

Praise all around

As Dalbello convened the Healthcare Incident Command System team a few more times during the remainder of the day and into Monday to ensure all systems were fully operational again, the group shared a lot of praise about how instrumental the teamwork was in averting a disaster.

"The teamwork between the different departments was nothing short of amazing," Zwiefelhofer says. "Each department showed up with a large number of workers on a Sunday and addressed the crisis. There was no grumbling."

Queensland echoed that sentiment.

"This was an incredible experience that showcased the collaboration and talent that helps Mayo Clinic be the No. 1 hospital in the world," he says. "This level of coordination is difficult to achieve in a planned utility interruption, let alone in an emergency response. 'Thank you' doesn't seem like a powerful enough sentiment to convey the level of appreciation I have for these teams."

Zwiefelhofer also credited the Healthcare Incident Command System team for quickly identifying critical needs and communicating with teams on the ground.

"It was a job well done by everyone involved," she says.

Davis said it was an exhausting day for everyone, "but also a day where you felt proud to work with such wonderful colleagues, all dedicated to Mayo's research mission."

For Dalbello, who is preparing to retire next month, this activation was likely his last as the HICS incident commander. And one final time, he saw greatness.

"Everyone was focused and doing whatever was required. The commitment was obvious," he said. "No one has all the answers, but the collective team accomplished quite a bit."