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Michael Rafala wouldn’t mind one bit if you didn’t notice him or the members of his staff when you visit the Minot International Airport.
“As a customer, if you don’t notice us, that means we’re doing our job,” Rafala said. “We often get compliments on this building. People are still amazed by it and that gets us pumped up and makes this job worth doing.”
Rafala spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft mechanic before going to work at the airport in 2017 as a facility technician. He became facility foreman just a few weeks ago.
“I lost sleep the first week because I know everything we’re responsible for, and now I’m the guy on the hook for everything,” he said.
There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to keep a facility like the Minot International Airport running smoothly, something Rafala is definitely more aware of since his promotion.
“What I didn’t have any idea about when I was a tech was the budget and dealing with all the contractors. I was insulated from all of that in my previous job,” he said. “After 20 years in the military and supervising up to 70 people, I was kind of tired of it. I didn’t really want that responsibility anymore. But after working as a tech since 2017, I was ready to step into this position when it became available.”
His expanded responsibilities include keeping all of the building’s equipment maintained and operating, and scheduling the many contractors that help keep the facility running smoothly. Some tasks that used to be out-sourced to contractors are now done in-house, Rafala said, including caring for the terrazzo flooring on the building’s main level, changing all of the filters for the heating and cooling systems, and converting the building’s thousands of lights to more efficient and cooler LEDs.
Rafala and his staff of six technicians are responsible for everything inside the facility, including janitorial duties, safety, and maintenance. The wide range of duties keeps the job interesting and challenging. Ideally, most of their work is done behind the scenes.
For Rafala and his staff, it’s kind of like being an official in a football game or a basketball game. No one sees the ref until something bad happens. When the baggage carousels are operating properly, no one thinks twice about it. When the heating or air conditioning systems are working correctly, who notices? That all changes when something breaks down.
“You take all of it for granted until it stops operating and becomes an emergency,” Rafala said. “Normally, what we do behind the scenes, no one is aware of until something breaks. That’s the lifestyle we live with here. You’re only as good as your last failure.”
The obvious goal for Rafala and his staff is to avoid failures, whether they’re equipment failures or human errors. There are plenty of challenges in a facility as large as the Minot International Airport; the roughly 121,000 square foot facility opened in February 2016.
Keeping the building properly heated and cooled takes a lot of work. The bottom level is particularly difficult to keep warm during frigid North Dakota winters. The entire north wall is exposed to cold winds, and the garage doors are opened multiple times during the day as baggage is brought in and out of the facility.
“The floor does have radiant heating and there are overhead heating elements, but it’s a challenge to keep it warm down there, to say the least,” Rafala said.
The facility’s massive heating and cooling system takes up the building’s entire third floor. North Dakota’s constant temperature fluctuations sometimes confuse the computer-monitored system.
“Sometimes when the system heats the building to a nice temperature, it gets fooled by Mother Nature into thinking the building needs to be cooled down so it automatically opens dampers and lets extremely cold outside air into the facility,” Rafala said, which means techs have to make adjustments to the computer system.
“Just another thing we’ve learned to keep an eye on,” he said.
Another innocent victim of the extreme cold of a North Dakota winter? The building’s fire suppression system.
The fire suppression pipes on the lower level are kept dry, Rafala said, so water inside the pipes doesn’t freeze. But if the system is used or tested, it’s challenging to get all the water out of the pipes.
“We need to keep an eye on pipes and sprinkler heads to look for corrosion caused by water sitting in the lines,” he said. “Mother Nature can create a lot of problems.”
His 20 years of maintenance experience in the Air Force has taught Rafala to be prepared for just about anything on the job. His experience as a supervisor helps him relate to people on a personal level, whether they’re co-workers or customers.
“I think in Minot, what differentiates us from other airports, is that the people here will stop and help you,” he said. “We don’t say ‘That’s not our job’ if someone asks for help. The airlines don’t have someone here all the time, so we’re here and we look official, so people ask us for information. We’re here to help them.”