FM Issue: Mission Critical Training

Training Is Often Missing In Mission Critical Planning

A methodical approach coupled with follow through goes a long way toward reliable operations in facilities that run 24/7.
A methodical approach coupled with follow through goes a long way toward reliable operations in facilities that run 24/7.
Various people at computers being trained.
Photo credit:

By James Szel, P.E.
From the September 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Human error causes as much as two-thirds of all critical environment failures and unplanned downtime. And failures related to human error can increase if risk mitigation measures are not in place, especially if there is a significant rate of turnover in operations and maintenance (O&M) staff. The risks involved in both having to train new employees in a timely manner and the void created by the departure of experienced staff members can challenge the reliability of a mission critical facility.

Without a structured plan that includes a training program, site specific training, and orientation as well as formal assessment, both new and existing employees may adopt and sustain bad habits that can affect operational expenses and continued reliability. To ensure proper training for both new and existing staff, facility managers (fms) in mission critical settings should ensure they have five crucial requirements in place: staffing plan; new hire training; firm process training; assessment program; and ongoing training.

Staffing Plan. A staffing plan will include an organizational diagram that illustrates how many staff members are required for each shift. For a mission critical facility that runs 24/7/365, fms will want to rightsize their staff based on demand, including emergency response, preventive maintenance, and service requests. Because it’s typically easier to perform preventive maintenance during off-peak hours, it’s important to review the skill levels of the O&M staff on that shift, which could require a different mix of mechanical and electrical specialties.

If only one staff member will man the night shift, that person must be well rounded—able to tackle any problem that arises. And if an O&M staff member will be required to access a ladder or enter a confined space, there must be more than one employee on the shift. Also, the organizational diagram should clearly state supervisor or shift leader on each shift.

New Hire Training. Beyond a general company orientation, HR training, and administrative requirements, a structured new hire training program should be developed. This should include a checklist listing all the elements of a new employee training program and skills that must be demonstrated (see sidebar below). Rather than simply conducting an informal walking orientation with current O&M personnel, training for new hires should be done in modules. While an informal orientation could result in the transference of bad habits from one generation of operators to the next, training in modules ensures each topic is covered.

The checklists below can be used to ensure accountability of a new employee as they complete the training program and master skills. And requiring trainers to sign off on each item provides a way to identify which trainers are most effective, based on the new employee’s ability to master the skill. Position descriptions should be written for hires to ensure the new employee has the specific skills and experience required. For example, a data center in Arizona might not need an operator who understands boilers, but a trading floor in New York will require someone who knows all types of equipment.

Firm Process Training. While service providers and owners have larger, more global O&M policies that must be adhered to across the company, each facility will have its own specific policies; all need to be complied with concurrently. Understanding the facility’s building management systems (BMS) is a case in point. Some BMS alarms may be critical while others may be nuisance alarms for non-critical equipment. The local O&M staff should be able to distinguish between the two and understand the cause of the alarm before taking action. For example, one staff member may try to start a pump remotely after hearing an alarm, when in fact the alarm has been triggered due to a pipe leak. In this case, if a pump is started again it could potentially do more damage.

Another critical element to process training is preparing staff for emergencies through simulation. For instance, what is the procedure for initiating a Black Start, or starting up systems without utility power? Black Start procedures typically begin with starting up emergency generators manually, and such a procedure would provide step-by-step guidance for all equipment.

Assessment Program. The key to any training program’s effectiveness is a robust assessment program, and the key to an effective assessment program is to make it site specific. Assessments should be performed by a supervisor who administers a structured set of questions in each subject area. This will include site walkthroughs with the trainee, as the trainee describes how each piece of equipment or system works, physically pointing out the switches and describing emergency processes. O&M staff members who complete a formal training program can be assessed in various ways:

Szel is senior vice president at Syska Hennessy (, a firm that provides engineering, consulting, and commissioning solutions for the built environment. Szel has been an engineering consultant for over 38 years, the last 25 in the facilities management division.
Szel is senior vice president at Syska Hennessy, a firm that provides engineering, consulting, and commissioning solutions for the built environment. Szel has been an engineering consultant for over 38 years, the last 25 in the facilities management division.
  • after each training module;
  • at completion of all training modules (tests for long-term retention, as full training could be up to six months); and
  • after a group of training modules, typically grouped by systems (e.g., electrical, mechanical).

Assessment queries include:

  • What is the site’s incoming utility voltage? How many feeds are there to the facility?
  • Describe electrical distribution system, including location of major components.
  • Explain emergency operation of the UPS.
  • What do you check during rounds in the UPS battery room?

Ongoing Training. Once an employee is trained on a system, it doesn’t mean they will retain that knowledge indefinitely. Sometimes equipment is replaced or updated or operators change roles. Refresher training courses should be offered annually. Because operators may not need to refresh annually on each system, it’s ideal to rotate systems, showing different components each year.

Conducting refresher training in different ways can keep employees engaged, including: individual training, site-specific team training, vendor training, compliance training, safety training, and environmental training. Additionally, simulation or random drill testing should be conducted annually. Randomly, O&M staff members should be asked to simulate an engineering drill (besides fire) or to perform annual skills assessment training on different systems.

From initial orientation to the operation of electrical, emergency, mechanical, BMS, and fire/life safety systems as well as overall facility and systems compliance, proper training can require up to several months to complete. And, because staff members may fall into a routine with daily operations and maintenance, ongoing training should be central to maintaining reliability at a critical facility.

Suggested Links: