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Published in CenterView on June 17, 2013
Mike Allen adjusts temperature controls near the old medical records area in the former University Hospital.
Mike Allen adjusts temperature controls near the old medical records area in the former University Hospital.

Refrigerator Shop provides comfortable atmosphere for Medical Center's missions

By Bruce Coleman

Anyone who makes the daily trek from the parking lot at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium to the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s main campus during the sweltering summer or bitter rainy winter months can appreciate the value of a temperature-controlled workplace.

Bobby Holston services a condenser motor on the University Hospital roof.
Bobby Holston services a condenser motor on the University Hospital roof.

But nowhere is it more critical than at an academic health science center, where the accurate delivery of patient care, the precise execution of scientific research and the effective discourse of health education all rely on a comfortable setting.

The task of maintaining that environment falls on the shoulders of the dozen employees in the Medical Center’s Refrigeration Shop. Its location in a modest brick building hidden behind a tall wooden fence at Shuttle Stop 17 belies the essential nature of one of the shop’s primary responsibilities: to support all of the institution’s missions by helping keep employees, students, patients and visitors on the main campus cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

“Few customers have an understanding of what it takes to heat and cool this space,” said John McCullouch, director of facilities. “They go from working on very large air conditioning systems to maintaining rooftop vents on top of buildings, pumps, chillers, piping, controls. Air intake for the Guyton Building takes 250 filters alone.

“The sheer size and scope of the equipment they deal with is

Robert Carr checks filters in the Guyton Resarch Center.
Robert Carr checks filters in the Guyton Resarch Center.

As is their ability to adapt to the variety of units the Medical Center employs. Refrigeration Shop staff must be able to maintain equipment original to the 1955 construction of the Medical Center as well as the latest cutting-edge environmental technology. They routinely manage units the size of large multi-story houses - approximately 10,000 square feet – to small units that serve trailers – approximately 25 square feet.

It’s the equivalent of moving seamlessly from abacuses to iPads.

Helping to navigate the Medical Center’s state-of-the-art ecology that is nevertheless deeply rooted in the past is Bryan Taylor, refrigerator shop supervisor. Next month, Taylor will celebrate his 30th anniversary at UMMC. One thing he’s learned while working his way up the ladder: the Refrigeration Shop is rarely boring.

“We’ve got to be sure the patients are comfortable as well as the visitors and the people who work here,” Taylor said. “We are also responsible for the isolation rooms for those patients with different health reasons, and we take care of the fire system – checking for damages.”

It’s a profession that requires a great degree of flexibility, according to Jim Baxter, associate director of engineering services.

“The Refrigeration Shop staff has to be flexible with patient-care demands,” Baxter said. “Then they get into the research wing and the biological requirements for the AC there. At the same time, they’re keeping up with the library, the dental school . . . Everything out there has different standards.

“The staff has to be familiar with a variety of environments.”

Their reach extends from the main UMMC campus to the buildings across Lakeland Drive and the Farmer’s Market behind the stadium. Although most of the structures are on a computerized energy management system, McCullouch said Refrigeration Shop employees “play a big role in that system to make sure it functions properly each day.”

“When you say refrigeration, there’s a lot of responsibility that rolls out of that.”

For example, the shop services 432 units in 64 buildings that heat and cool approximately 3.4 million square feet of space at the Medical Center. Filters are such a priority – the staff replaces more than 16,000 each year – that three of the shop’s employees are dedicated specifically to changing air filters and cleaning grills.

“Nobody in our shop is without something to do,” Taylor said. “We’re never caught up.”

Compounding the employees’ degree of difficulty is a string of regulations for each area they service that seems to get longer as each year passes.

“Joint Commission is a lot more active than it used to be,” Taylor said. “Different labs have to get their accreditation, and we have to help them with that, whether it’s certifying fume hoods for research or laboratory purposes or maintaining transparency about the things we have to maintain on a daily basis.”

The dramatic increase in the Medical Center’s population on a typical day and the constant demand for service can be daunting for refrigeration shop employees, too. It’s a never-ending triage of environmental concerns that makes fulfilling regularly scheduled tasks difficult.

“Everything is constantly changing,” Taylor said. “I can plan on putting two employees to work servicing chillers in the student union. Then a cooler in one of the labs quits working. Emergencies do come up and you’re always changing what’s first on the list.

“That’s part of life: we accept it and we go on. We don’t know what’s going to happen at any time, and we have to address it right away.”

What never changes is the shop’s commitment to responding to every environmental need. McCullouch is quick to remember that “in the winter, when it’s 20 degrees outside, these guys also have to deal with keeping people warm.”

The fact that Taylor is unable to recall an environmental emergency the refrigeration shop was unable to handle in a timely fashion is a testament to its organization. He credits a commitment to preventive maintenance by the Division of Physical Facilities for such a robust record.

“Physical Facilities always have been strong on preventive maintenance and taking care of things before they get to the breaking point,” Taylor said. “Equipment is not run to failure.

“There’s a lot of redundancy that makes it easier to do preventive maintenance and that’s a big step to keeping outages from happening.”

McCullouch said an effective preventive maintenance program is critical to keep the equipment operating to meet the needs of the space.

“When we schedule an AC unit for maintenance with a department, our schedulers work with the department on the date and time,” he said. “Our staff comes out early, performs the work, and it’s done in a controlled way during off times when patients are asleep so it won’t be as much of an impediment to them.”

Or to anyone else at the Medical Center, for that matter.

“We don’t want our staff or physicians to walk in on a hot office for a Saturday morning meeting,” Taylor said.

That commitment is reflected by the way Refrigeration Shop employees work with their peers in the Division of Physical Facilities.

“You’ve got to have teamwork,” Taylor said. “Because of the nature of the work we’re in, we’ve got to work with the guys in the other shops.
Everybody wants the job done right, whether they are electricians, plumbers, machinists, carpenters, painters, power plant staff or the storeroom staff.

“These people aren’t going to be satisfied with just doing a job. They want to do it right and they all do their best to get it right the first time.”

Taylor said Refrigeration Shop employees not only understand how valuable their roles are at the Medical Center, they take pride in them as well.

“The Medical Center is like a family, it’s a place with a lot of pride,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have to be here – they could do their jobs elsewhere – but they’re here because they want to be.

“There may be three or four Mondays in a week, but it’s a great place to work.”

Keeping cool during emergencies

Marilyn Bray, director of laboratory services, remains in frequent contact with Refrigeration Shop staff, especially when an emergency arises in the middle of the night.

“One of the most distressing calls I get at 3 a.m. is telling me that a refrigerator with a million dollars of reagents is alarming,” said Bray. “This means that a carefully regulated temperature of two-to-eight degrees on a refrigerator, or minus-20 degrees on a freezer, is climbing up or down.

“If the temperature on these reagents does not remain constant, then they have to be destroyed and cannot be used for testing. The loss would be immeasurable to the laboratory and to the hospital.”

She said laboratory refrigerators and freezers are monitored 24 hours a day by an electronic system housed in Physical Facilities that is maintained by the Refrigeration Shop.

“They are also responsible for our satellite labs,” she said. “What can I say about the Refrigeration Shop?

They are here, they respond and they fix the problem.

“I would say they are the best.”