Very successful experiments, high-quality ion beams for research — the current experiment time on the GSI and FAIR campus delivered positive results even during the corona pandemic. In numerous areas, the existing accelerator facility has been able to provide researchers with a wide variety of ion beams and open the way for new discoveries and excellent research opportunities in the future. In our blog, members of staff report on how they are experiencing and overcoming the crisis. This interview took place in the experimental period in March/April 2020.
Stephan Reimann is head of the department “Operations” at GSI. He arranges the operating processes of the accelerator facility, organizes shifts and on-call duties and coordinates between the operators, the beamtime coordinator, machine physicists and technical staff. This includes the preparation and coordination of beamtime periods and shutdown phases, the optimization of beam parameters for running experiments and the beam-setup for new experiments. He and his team are also preparing the commissioning of FAIR.
How has the Corona pandemic changed your everyday work?
My work involves a lot of communication, I am constantly in contact with the technical experts, operators, accelerator physicists and the management. Since our colleagues are now required to work from home whenever possible, this communication must now take place by other means. Much is now done in writing, by telephone and via video conferencing. Everyone had to get used to it and there was a lot of room for misunderstanding. It is therefore important to be very clear in what is said and to distribute information about decisions and changes in plans quickly and as widely as possible.
Normally there would be up to 30 people in the main control room (HKR) during the beamtime. Now, only the three operators and a few storage ring experts are allowed. All those present are required to maintain the minimum distances. The operators must sit far enough apart at the consoles and must also otherwise follow all recommended health and safety rules.
In order to maintain accelerator operation, the operators are crucial for us. The control room must also be manned with at least two persons around the clock for safety reasons. Even if only a few operators fall ill or are quarantined, we very quickly get into a situation where we would have to force a shutdown. In order to minimize the risk, we have decided that the operators will no longer attend meetings and will remain exclusively in the control room. The main control room is also closed to all other people. This minimizes the number of contacts and thus the risk. The control room therefore currently offers an unusually lonely sight.
Which work could be maintained, which had to stop?
So far we have been able to reliably maintain accelerator operation. But of course everything takes a little longer. For example, the on-call teams are no longer on campus during the day. They only have to come in from working at home when they are needed. It therefore now takes longer to resolve certain problems.
The experiment program itself had to be reduced due to travel restrictions for many of our users. This also reduces the complexity of the necessary operating modes and thus the general risk of failure. This makes things a bit easier for us.
What measures have you personally taken to continue working while minimizing the health risks?
As many people as possible work from home. I also work from home about 50% of the time. Operators aren’t supposed to enter the campus at all outside of shift times.
I have given participants of the on-call duty the opportunity to be on call at home during normal working hours in the current situation. The obligation to be on campus has been suspended. Otherwise, we have provided disinfectant with which keyboards and telephones etc. can be regularly disinfected. Masks and gloves are also available on site. Although wearing them is not yet obligatory, we at least want to give
everyone the opportunity to use them, as we want to take into account the different safety needs of the different members of staff.
In addition, on the advice of the experts, we have switched the ventilation systems in the HKR to outside air operation only so that there is no circulation in the room.
How do you organise work in the team?
All meetings are now held as video conferences, including the daily so-called noon meeting. We then summarise the results by e-mail and sometimes additionally pass them on to the shift personnel by telephone. Overall, there are now many more telephone calls and e-mails.
The large operations coordination meeting is now also held online. The same applies to the shutdown meeting. Here we plan the time and task management for the upcoming maintenance phase starting in June, when the accelerators will not be running.
What challenges did you face?
Especially the initial phase was difficult. We had to adjust very quickly and find the right balance. That wasn’t easy, but in the meantime we have adapted to the new situation.
What work can be done from home?
Unfortunately, we cannot operate the particle accelerators from home. Although this would be technically possible in principle, it is not practical. Furthermore, having staff present at the main control room is also mandatory for safety reasons. We can still plan and coordinate well from home. Scientific articles, reports and protocols can be written particularly well at home. However, preparing new projects is difficult, but to a certain extent it is still possible.
What do you wish for the near future?
For the near future I wish above all that everyone remains healthy. Many foreign collaboration partners cannot visit us at the moment. I hope we will see them all healthy again soon.
The interest in beam time at our facilities is very high worldwide. Due to the work for FAIR, however, we currently have only limited time in which we can provide beam time for scientific users. For the operation of the facility, I would therefore like it if we could still complete the reduced program successfully and do not have to go into an earlier shutdown.