Distinguished Staff Award
Photograph of Friday Harbor Laboratories Maintenance and Operations Crew

Friday Harbor Laboratories

Maintenance and Operations Crew
Thomas Campbell, Fred Ellis, George Iliff, Richard McCarthy, Thomas Pieples, and Jeffrey Seitz

Nominated by Sandra Hines

Awarded 2010

It’s not just buildings, grounds and equipment, “it’s an extensive machine.”

That sums up facilities at Friday Harbor Laboratories, says maintenance crew supervisor Fred Ellis of the place he and five other crew members are charged with maintaining and operating. It includes more than 70 buildings as well as teaching labs, research labs, a motor pool, housing and dining facilities, extensive marine infrastructure and 11 boats. For their work, Ellis and crew members Rick McCarthy, George Illif, Tommy Pieples, Jeff Seitz and Tom Campbell have received one of this year’s distinguished staff awards.

The “machine,” for instance, includes a saltwater system using water from San Juan Channel that is piped to as many as 500 sea tables, a kind of aquarium used for research, before the water is returned to the channel. The sea tables range in size from 5 gallons to 10,000 gallons and the whole system is the lifeblood for the laboratories where students and researchers from the UW and around the world come to conduct marine related work.

But where there is saltwater, there is life, and not just in the sea tables where it is supposed to grow. Thus for a full week, three times a year, the maintenance crew cleans the system’s pipes, lines, nozzles and stems in what one crew member describes as “muddy, barnacley, clammy, smelly” work.

It has to be done to serve the science.

“The crew is tasked with the complex and critically important job of keeping this laboratory running without interruption. Interruptions mean that experiments are lost, experimental animals are at risk, time-critical research is delayed or people, who may have come from thousands of miles away cannot perform their research in the short time they have at FHL,” says David Duggins, supervisor of marine operations. “I am constantly amazed that as often as these small emergencies surface, the crew is always willing to drop what they are doing and put in whatever effort is needed to get the science back on track. Middle of the night, weekends, blizzard weather conditions, it does not seem to even slow these folks down.”

Other work in support of the science ranges from helping researchers construct devices for use in the field and labs to fashioning specialized mountings for instrumentation being installed in deep water and mounting sophisticated oceanographic instrumentation on the lab’s remotely operated vehicle, says Kenneth Sebens, director of the laboratories.

“I constantly overload Fred and his crew,” Sebens wrote in his letter of nomination. “They have an almost impossible job and they attack it daily with energy and enthusiasm.”

Adam Summers, associate director of the laboratories, described the crew’s strengths, saying, “The team consists of Fred, who in addition to being the point person is able to take on some of the actual heavy lifting himself. Rick McCarthy, a former heavy industry millwright, is an expert in job safety, welding, electrical systems and machinery. George Illif, with five years as maintenance supervisor at the University of Portland and 15 years at the lab as a maintenance mechanic, has mastered most of the building trades. We look to him for interior and exterior work on the buildings as well as marine work. Tommy Pieples, a knowledgeable boater, has grown into one of the most innovative members of the group, always willing to get more knowledge or explore alternate ways of doing things.

“Jeff Seitz is willing to take on any building task, but his real talents lie in grounds keeping, and he has an unparalleled green thumb. This is of vital importance as the labs has over 400 acres of land under management. The final member is Tom Campbell, who as a former contractor and finish carpenter, is our most talented builder. His long experience in the trades ensures that a job is both highest quality and efficiently executed.”

Supervisor Ellis says he’s blessed with a crew flexible enough and skilled enough to get the job done, “and get it done in a gracious way.” That’s his own approach as well.

“Time and time again I will hear from Fred (usually after I ask him to do some odious task) that I should not worry; he will find a way to get it done quickly,” wrote Duggins. “Fred is classic leadership by example, always willing to get down and dirty to provide another set of hands or to come in on the weekend to deal with a problem that perhaps could wait until Monday but would be much better fixed on Sunday.”

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