Fort Meade Mail center's negative pressure room designed to contain pathogens
May 28, 2009
- Fort Meade Mail and Distribution Center dedicates new negative pressure room
Fort Meade, Md. - Six years ago, botulism was detected in Fort Meade's Mail and Distribution Center.
The facility was put under quarantine and a decontamination site was set up in the parking lot. All seven staffers had to strip down to their underwear and shower outside in 50-degree temperatures. "It turned out to be contaminated food, but we didn't know that at the time," said Carl Russell, mail room manager.
Given hospital gowns, the staffers sat in Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center ambulances while blood was drawn and other tests taken. "After that, we went home in Kimbrough hospital gowns," said Russell, who had a terrible reaction to the injections and underwent painful surgery and treatments. "I don't want to go through that anymore."
To avoid a recurrence of quarantining the entire mail center if biological agents are detected, Fort Meade recently installed a negative pressure containment room.
The dedication was held May 20 outside the Mail and Distribution Center on Chamberlin Avenue. Guest speaker Bill Palmer, president of AeroMed, explained the process, then led a tour of the system designed and supplied by his New York-based company.
"You are shutting down a room; you are not shutting down a building," he said. "It gives piece of mind during the process. Little can be done to eliminate all risks, but this severely reduces risk and exposure."
While there are medical containments in the military, said Palmer, Fort Meade is the only Army installation with a containment room for the mail. The room combines biological detection and negative pressure containment, allowing all mail to be contained and tested prior to distribution on the installation.
A room that is at negative pressure has a lower pressure than adjacent areas, which keeps air from flowing out of the room and into adjacent rooms or areas and prevents airborne contaminants from leaving the room.
"It was a long time coming," said LaVern Atkinson, chief of administrative services for the Directorate of Human Resources, which oversees the mail operation. "We feel much safer now."
The $74,000 cost was funded through Fort Meade's anti-terrorism office, said Bernard Cullen, director of DHR. The 10-foot by 20-foot room is built with glass and steel walls. The additional anteroom provides a buffer zone so people can enter and leave without disrupting the flow of air into the containment room.
At the start of the process, the mail truck is backed up to a newly constructed entrance. After the mail is unloaded by the two deliverers, the front doors are closed and locked. The two staffers then roll the cart carrying a dozen bins of mail into a corner.
A portable biological detection system called a biological sniffer tests for eight pathogens: smallpox, plague, ricin, anthrax, brucella, botulinum toxin and Staphylococcal enterotoxin B. "After a few minutes, if positive for any of these eight biological agents, it will get two bars on it, kind of like a pregnancy test," Palmer said.
The two mail deliverers then place the entire bin on an X-ray machine that also detects bombs. "Once OK, they can leave the room with the mail," Palmer said.
If a contaminant is detected, an alarm sounds. No one is allowed into the building. Only the contaminant and mail deliverers are in the room. "So now, instead of contaminating the whole building, you're only contaminating the room," Palmer said.
The project was a collaborative effort involving several directorates, said Mary Staab, director of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security at Fort Meade. "We knew of a vulnerability and addressed it," she said. "Those involved understood it as important. That's why it happened as quickly as it did, faster than anybody anticipated. And we had the space to accommodate it. We separated the mail room out after 9/11."
Installing the room was first proposed by Mike Sloan of the Information Assurance Division at the Directorate of Information Management when DOIM operated the mail center. "When I came on, they all were telling me war stories [of the botulism scare], and so I thought, 'If I just save one person from standing out there and taking showers...' " he recalled.
At that time, the area was only tested at 3 p.m. each day. "Under the old system, anybody who came in the room that day - customers and every employee - could have been contaminated," Sloan said.
Sloan applied for allocations after attending in 2004 a negative pressure room exhibit at a MAILCOM conference in Anaheim, Calif. Once the mail center fell under DHR, Cullen decided to follow through.
"I kept his initiative going and got the anti-terrorism office involved," Sloan said. "This is a great benefit for the safety of the staff and the customers."