NAA Maintenance Instructor Preaches Importance of Safety & On-Site Cooperation


Paul Rhodes believes his heart stopped for just a moment that day while changing a light fixture in a pool early in his maintenance career. He had all the classic signs – pain down his left arm, the feeling of an elephant on his chest and shortness of breath.

Dripping wet from being in the pool, he pulled two wires through the conduit and began the electrical connection. Unfortunately he touched wires that were live, sending a charge of 120 volts coursing through his body. Rhodes instinctively let go of the wires and caught his breath, then stood in a daze for a moment.

When he collected his thoughts, he went to the breaker box to see what happened. He had shut off the breaker to the pool light and tested it with his voltage detector pen to make sure the wires were dead before he hopped into the pool.

Later he learned that another technician had flipped on the breaker, which also supplied power for a treadmill in the fitness center. A resident had complained the machine wasn’t working, and a call was put in to maintenance to check it out. If only Rhodes had better followed procedure and locked out and tagged the breaker so his colleague would’ve known.

“It’s the most scared I’d ever been in all my life,” said the 43-year-old Rhodes, now the National Apartment Association Education Institute’s National Safety and Maintenance Instructor. “And it all came from my responsibility to lock out the breaker. The maintenance guy had flipped the breaker. He did right. It wasn’t his fault. It was my fault.

Apartment Maintenance Best Practices: Avoiding the “Happy Dance”

In his 21 years on the maintenance side of the apartment industry, Rhodes has heard similar tales while traveling the country and teaching maintenance practices and safety.

Image of Paul Rhodes of NAAIn the classroom, he instructs with the reverence and strong fits of an evangelist and every so often drops into the deep baritone of an announcer voice to emphasize a point. He’s at ease preaching maintenance practices no matter how simple, and engages audiences by mixing a little humor and entertainment with what some may otherwise consider drab content.

At NAA’s Education Conference & Exposition at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center in June, Rhodes spent 45 minutes talking to experienced maintenance technicians and managers about various types of multi-meters and how to use them effectively. His curriculum was essentially basic electrical dos and don’ts, and his showman style kept everybody in their seats until the last slide. The goal was to help attendees avoid the “electrical happy dance, or new hair-do.”

While he didn’t share his near-death experience with the audience, he knows he’s not alone. Often after training sessions, students show him their battle scars from working with electrical components. He even asked Denver attendees who had been shocked, and everyone raised their hand.

“One guy gave me his old wedding band, and I’m not sure why, but it’s a solid gold wedding band with a chunk melted out of middle because he worked on a switch that he thought he turned off,” Rhodes said.

While Rhodes had no use for the wedding band, he knows he must have made an impact with the man. He attributes his ability to make classes and conference sessions entertaining enough to not only get his message across but also turn nuts-and-bolts content into something special.

Making Maintenance Safety Instruction Entertaining

His Sunday morning style is nothing new. In a six-plus year career overseeing HD Supply’s training program, Rhodes earned the nickname of “Preacher.”  He realized early on that to hold an audience and emphasize his point, he needed to add a little conviction when talking about positive and negative leads.

“The motivation for me was early in my maintenance career I attended a lot of classes and most of them were dry, boring and, for lack of a better term, an information dump,” he said. “It’s bland information and it’s good information, relevant, and you need to know it. It’s kind of unfortunate but the entertainment part has to be in there as well.”

A stern but light approach enables Rhodes to find out quickly how well his audience knows their stuff, even the basics. He often finds that many technicians fail to follow that simple lockout-tagout process, a procedure used to ensure that power sources aren’t turned on until maintenance or service work has been finished – a process that got him into trouble several years ago.

Image of man attaching a lockout tag to an electrical control panel

During the NAA session, he emphasized the importance of communication through the lockout-tagout process after he realized that about only half of those in attendance knew how to correctly use a multi-meter to determine that a circuit was live in one scenario.

“If the technician didn’t put the leads on that circuit in that case, they’d get a brand new hair-do,” Rhodes said afterward. “Yet, we’re dealing with stuff they thought they knew. That’s a very basic concept of understanding how to use that meter.”

Communication and Cross Training Help Departments Coexist

Re-enforcing the basics, however, isn’t the biggest challenge in the maintenance arena, Rhodes said. The perception by management that maintenance technicians are too valuable on the property to take time out for training has to be changed.

“A lot of companies, affiliates and associations say maintenance is the most important thing to resident retention,” Rhodes said. “At the same time I go to associations and their management-style classes are full while they can get barely enough technicians to attend so that maintenance training classes can occur.”

Also, property staff, Rhodes said, should make sure that effective communication practices are in place when working with maintenance teams and that ample time is provided to make repairs. The last thing a technician needs to do is beat a deadline, especially when working with electricity.

To be fair, however, maintenance techs need to change their perception that the front office is uncaring and doesn’t listen all the time, and that they don’t have any room to learn more about their craft, Rhodes said.

It’s a two-way street.

Rhodes said simple team building techniques and even role-playing will help bring management and maintenance closer together. For example, have a maintenance tech attend leasing or office training, and get an office manager to help with fixing a sink.

“Just get a little bit of cross training,” Rhodes said. “The best managers I ever worked for did that.”

He paused for minute and thought of another maintenance task he’d indulge the front office during cross training. “I’d have them working on a toilet, pulling a wax ring under the toilet, one of the most disgusting, horrible jobs there are,” Rhodes said with a laugh. But, “since turnabout is fair play, they would often sit me down coding invoices as revenge!”

So long as the electrical work gets left to the maintenance department.


(Image sources: Shutterstock, Paul Rhodes)



Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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