The Go Team

  • Bob Gulla managing editor, Reason, FM Global

Syracuse University presents an eclectic mix of risk management challenges


Thousands of students, hundreds of buildings and acres of land amount to an eclectic mix of risks. Add a data center and a massive domed stadium, drop the whole shebang in the middle of the snowiest city in America, and you have a very unique set of risk management challenges. Welcome to Syracuse University!

Syracuse University presents a very unique set of risk management challenges.
Syracuse University has more than 20,000 students enrolled, representing all 50 states and 128 countries. It also owns and leases property in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It is the second biggest employer in Syracuse, N.Y., USA. Its sports and special events attract hundreds of thousands. And let’s not forget the weather, which brings an average of 121 inches (3 meters) of snow a year, courtesy of the city’s proximity to Lake Ontario.

We have a mutual understanding of risk, and FM Global understands the exploration of risk and hazards and meeting the needs of the client.

All of that has pushed risk management to the forefront on the 200-acre (81-hectare) campus. “The University places a high value on risk management,” explains David Pajak, MBA, ARM, director, risk management, and chief emergency management officer. “We are involved any time the university makes an acquisition or signs a lease. We get involved in the initial design of buildings, and any kind of program that protects a facility or maintains a facility, including emergency response programs.”

Mitigating risk is a big part of everything Syracuse does. The University sees it as an integral part of the safety and security of the school. Pajak reports to Dr. Louis Marcoccia, executive vice president and chief financial officer, who is a member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet (the school’s leadership team).

The school’s Carrier Dome is the campus’s most dominant structure. It beckons football, basketball and lacrosse fans from all over the region and is the largest domed stadium on any college campus in the country. So it’s not surprising that SU places a huge emphasis on risk management. Its size, location and shared history with the city for which it is named make it a vital part of the community; it needs protection deserving of that prominence.

State-of-the-Art Green Data Center Opened in 2009

Ensuring the information technology (IT) infrastructure of a world-renowned research university certainly focuses the spotlight on managing risk.

All serious data centers have back up generators, but what's superior about this facility is that it is much less dependent on the outside world.

Syracuse began looking at its long-term data capacity in 2004. The growth trajectory of the school’s server needs prompted a US$12.7 million investment in a new data center. Designed and built in partnership with IBM, and opened in 2009, the 12,000-square-foot (1,115-square-meter) facility accomplished three important objectives—providing the University with an abundance of server capacity, reducing the university’s energy consumption through green technology, and incorporating the very best risk management practices.

“This facility is a really good intersection of risk management and greenness,” said Christopher Sedore, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at SU. “What’s unique about this data center is the on-site power generation—the 600-kilowatt power plant built into the facility. All serious data centers have backup generators, but what’s superior about this facility, both from a power and a risk management standpoint, is that it is much less dependent on the outside world.”

Redundant power sources are the name of the game in data protection, Sedore said. Even a momentary loss of power could result in significant data loss. The on-site power generation, using Capstone microturbines, is the first of its kind and insulates the center from any local power outage. The center uses 12 turbines, but only 10 are required to generate all the energy needed at the facility. It is powered by natural gas, which is less susceptible to power interruptions than other energy sources.

The turbines can also run on propane in an emergency, and a day’s supply is stored on-site. Forty-four tons (40 metric tons) of batteries also provide 22 minutes of backup power, enough time to shift vital functions to a backup data center located elsewhere on campus. The center is also connected to the local electric utility grid allowing it to use off-site power, if necessary.

In addition to power redundancies, the data center is also designed to capture and back up data to minimize data loss.

“Data centers are rated on redundancy on a scale of 1 to 4,” Sedore explains. “We operate as a Tier 2-plus, which is about a normal pace for a university and meets our design target for risk and efficiency.”

But what may be most impressive about the data center is its “greenness.” The data center uses 50 percent less energy than a typical center of its size.

Data centers typically have to convert alternating current (AC) from the electric grid to direct current (DC) to power their servers. The Capstone microturbines produce DC current, eliminating the conversion and the energy loss associated with it.

Heat generated from the turbines is recaptured and used in generating cooling for the servers and an adjacent building. The center uses Thermax absorption chillers, a state-of-the-art, reliable and quiet method of converting the heat generated by the turbines into chilled water. The Thermax absorption chillers, the first used in the United States, have the capacity to make the equivalent of 300 tons (272 metric tons) of ice, three times more cooling than needed by the data center. Heat exchangers are used in the winter to convert heat from the turbines into heat for the nearby building. The server racks are also fitted with heat exchanger “cooler doors.” The doors remove heat more efficiently than traditional air conditioning methods.

And if the data center wasn’t unique enough, it is also equipped with a research lab, allowing students to study more efficient ways to design, build and operate data centers.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the only data center of its kind at any university,” Sedore said.

Steam Station Ties School to City

Founded in 1870, the University has a long intertwined history with the city. SU, for example, has its own steam station, generating the steam needed to heat many of its campus buildings. The University has been producing its own steam since 1904 and the current plant dates back to 1926. The steam facility has grown along with the school. Underground lines reach all across campus and connect the University’s steam system to the city’s municipal power infrastructure. The steam station provides steam to other Syracuse businesses including Upstate University Hospital.

Providing steam to the Level-1 trauma center, which features the region’s only children’s hospital, adds to the risk management necessity. Steam clients also include Crouse Hospital, Syracuse VA (Veterans Affairs) Medical Center and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The steam center also produces steam for the University’s Chilled Water Plant, which provides chilled water for air conditioning of many of the main campus buildings in the warmer months.

Given the steam plants’ importance, SU has developed state-of-the-art business continuity plans for them, Pajak explained. The school operates two separate steam-generating facilities, the Riley Steam Plant and the Alco Steam Plant, giving the school added capacity and backup capabilities. Numerous redundancies have been built into the steam-production process, and the school has the ability to bring in package boilers if its current boilers were to fail.

In 2009, the University took over the management of the steam station from an outside vendor as it looked to develop a long-range strategy for the facility. After the takeover, the University worked in partnership with FM Global to implement a burner-management system. The program helps ensure the burners are run at optimal settings, reducing the potential for mishaps and damage.

“We work very well as a team with FM Global,” Pajak said, who has worked with FM Global for most of his 22 years at Syracuse. “We have a mutual understanding of risk, and they understand the exploration of risk and hazards and meeting the needs of the client. We have very effective communications, looking at different options and coming up with solutions.”

The steam center is part of the school’s Energy Systems and Sustainability Management Department, which is focused on helping Syracuse use its resources more effectively. The plant recently installed two new air compressors that will cut its water use by three million gallons (11,356 cubic meters) of water a year. Earlier this year, the school also announced plans to develop a master plan that will transform the University’s steam station into a more modern and efficient plant.

The Carrier Dome: The Most Unique Risk of All

But while just about every institute of higher learning has a sports stadium and/or arena, a data center, and many have their own steam plants, there is only one Carrier Dome.

Opened in September of 1980, the Carrier Dome is one of the largest air-supported domed stadiums in the country. Known in Syracuse as simply “the Dome,” it sits in the middle of campus on the site of the former Archbold Stadium.

Most famous as the home of the Syracuse football and basketball teams, the Dome plays host to nearly 270 events a year. In addition to basketball and football, it is home to the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. It has been used for monster trucks, commencements, ice skating, track and field and softball, as well as numerous musical events, including the “One World” concert featuring the Dalai Lama.

“The aeronautics program has a contest here every year,” explains Peter Sala, senior associate athletic director for facilities operations. “They all design and build airplanes and then see whose can fly the farthest. They probably get 3,000 people here to watch. It’s really something.”

From a risk management standpoint, Sala and his stadium control crew are the key to the Dome’s well-being. Not only do they manage and staff hundreds of events, but they also constantly monitor the weather and the Dome’s 6.5 acre (2.6 hectare) roof.

“Stadium control monitors the stadium and the weather 24/7,” Sala said. “I probably get five faxes a day on the weather. We watch the barometric pressure and we monitor the temperature inside and out. We have sensors all over the building. There are four wind monitors on the building. We are always looking over our shoulder at the weather.”

Weather is the most persistent risk to the Dome. Fortunately, most of the snowfall in Syracuse is lake-effect snow resulting in small amounts over a long period of time, which is easier for Sala and his crew to handle. But Syracuse is also hit with an occasional nor’easter, and severe wind storms have done damage in the area.

If a snow storm is predicted, the air inside the Dome is heated to 145 degrees, enough to melt the snow before it accumulates. If the temperature drops below 20 degrees during a storm, snow removal personnel are deployed on the roof. As many as 30 workers will clear snow using shovels and fire hoses.

The Dome may be one of the most monitored and inspected facilities in the city. Monitors detect over- and underpressurization as well as roof temperature. All lights, cables, hanging speakers and anchor bolts are inspected annually and the roof is inspected on a regular basis. Automatic fan controls keep an eye on the 16 fans, each 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter, that are used to keep the Carrier Dome’s 220-ton (200-metric-ton) roof inflated.

Redundancies abound to ensure the air-supported roof stays that way. These redundancies are designed to mitigate the most serious risk, an uncontrolled deflation.

The 16 fans each have the capacity to move 95,000 cubic feet (2,690 cubic meters) of air per minute. The stadium was designed so that one fan is enough to keep the roof inflated. The fans are powered by two separate feeds from National Grid, the local utility. A 750-kilowatt emergency generator is on-site, fed by a 3,000-gallon (11.4-cubicmeter) underground storage tank. There is 100-percent redundancy in all mechanicals and several replacement roof panels are stored on-site.

Improvements and technological advances have helped reduce risks. In 2000, the 64 panels making up the roof were replaced at the cost of US$14 million. The new roof panels are twice as thick as the old ones. In the last few years, an inner lining was removed from the roof to aid in the melting of snow using internal heat. The Dome has also had several upgrades over the years to keep up with advances in artificial turf, sound equipment and digital signage.

“It is a very unique building,” Sala adds. “The roof and the lower structure are completely independent. There is an expansion joint behind the top row of seats that allows the building to move in and out. It is really a living, breathing thing.”