Hidden health care: Guardians of the pneumatic tube system

The Master Transfer Unit (MTU), a.k.a., the O’Hare Airport of our pneumatic tube system, sits at a crossroads of nearly 8 miles of tubing in the depths of Colloton Pavilion. About 6,000 carriers pass through this system every day.

Carriers zoom into this transfer station, pause as they are moved to the appropriate tube or runway, and then continue onto their destination.

The pneumatic tubes transport pharmacy medications, paperwork, blood from the DeGowin Blood Center, pathology lab tests, and more.

One out of the 167 pneumatic tube stations on the main UI Health Care campus

One hundred and sixty-seven stations on the main campus (which includes the new children’s hospital) and extensive tubing make this the largest Radio Frequency Identification System (RFID) in the country. Thirteen more stations at UI Health Care–Iowa River Landing are a bonus.

At any station, the user simply punches in the number of the destination site, places the container into the opening, and sends it off. Traveling at about 20 miles per hour, the tube will typically arrive at its destination in about five to six minutes.

The many benefits of the RFID pneumatic tube system include:

  • Improved security of the items being transferred
  • Saves staff time (and money) from transporting materials by foot
  • Items arrive more quickly

This last benefit is especially crucial in surgeries when the surgery team needs blood—and they need it fast. Priority can be set on rush packages to avoid any traffic slowdowns.

The staff behind the system

Ron Brus, senior systems control technician, stands near the Master Transfer Unit, or O’Hare Airport, of the pneumatic tube system

Behind the scenes, you can find Engineering Services staff monitoring the shipments, as each container is tracked with an RFID tag (the same type of chip you might have in your Jack Russell Terrier). The computer system tracks the location of every carrier, so the staff can see its exact location and the time that it arrived at its destination. (This is especially helpful when someone calls asking where a certain container is, and the sender, for example, entered in the wrong destination code.)

Seven full-time employees maintain the critical pneumatic tube system 24/7, with Ron Brus, senior systems control technician, among them. “The only time people know what we do is when something goes wrong,” Brus says with a laugh.

Many of the service calls they field are to help users track packages or provide assistance with using the system. They also perform regular maintenance on the system. Third shift employees are utility players who field all Engineering Services calls, including plumbing, power, etc.

Fun fact

Each tube travels on average about 500 feet, and with 6,000 tubes used each day, that’s about 3 million feet per day, or 1.095 billion feet per year. That’s 7.57 times around the earth!

Last spring, Brus won the University of Iowa’s Improving Our Workplace Award (IOWA) for his work on improving the efficiency of the pneumatic tube system through the O’Hare Airport MTU when UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital came on board. The tube system became overloaded when the new building opened, but he worked to fix the issue and successfully reduced transit time.

Bob Miller, director of Engineering Services, says, “It’s a great team—no hesitancy from them to step in when someone needs help at anytime of the week, night and weekend. And it’s a massive system to maintain.”

Engineering Services: the backbone of patient comfort and safety

Besides the pneumatic tube system, the 100+ staff members in the Department of Engineering Services are involved in nearly every aspect of the maintenance, testing, and repair function that covers approximately 6 million square feet in many UI Health Care buildings, including:

  • Heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems and building automation systems
  • Plumbing, water treatment, and chilled water systems
  • Medical gases
  • Locksmiths and door repairs
  • Electrical, lighting, and emergency generator systems
  • Refrigeration equipment
  • Automated temperature monitoring of refrigerators and freezers
  • Painting, carpentry, wall, and floor repairs
  • Minor renovations
  • Equipment repair (chairs, desks, wheelchairs, etc.)
  • 159 Call Center
  • Vertical transports (elevators, escalators, cart lifts)
  • Roof maintenance
  • Life safety compliances
  • Sign manufacturing
  • Medical instrument shop
  • Grounds, landscape, and plant maintenance
  • Snow removal

“We touch many different aspects of environmental and comfort care for our patients. At a moment’s notice, our staff respond to fix a light in a patient’s room, respond to a plumbing issues, or whatever the case may be. That’s how committed they are,” says Miller.

October 22 to 28 is Engineering Services Week, so take a minute to thank an Engineering Services employee next time you see them for the work they do to keep this place humming.

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