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Working on the Towline
A tour of Hopkins’ back-of-the-house operations reveals a hidden underworld.

blank Ken Grant (front and center) with part of his team on the towline.
Ken Grant (front and center) with part of his team on the towline. “We had a lot of opportunity here to do a lot of creative things.”

It takes a lot of big truck traffic to keep The Johns Hopkins Hospital supplied in bulk medical supplies, chemicals, linen and equipment. Two years ago,  a huge, 22-bay loading dock tucked behind an inconspicuous driveway off the 1700 block of East Fayette Street was built to accommodate those deliveries. It replaced a three-bay dock on Jefferson Street.

“This is probably one of the largest receiving facilities in health care,” says Ken Grant, vice president of general services. “You’re not going to find many with this kind of capacity.”

But in exchange for the coveted space, Grant’s group traded proximity. Now they would have to transport all those deliveries two blocks north to the main hospital.

The solution lies three stories under Orleans Street where a vast, gray tunnel houses a quarter-mile of towline. Mechanized carts, big enough to hold a unit’s worth of linens, get attached to the line, a chain in the floor that operates 24/7. Each type of cart is identified by a tag that also determines its destination.

“We turn over 82 of them a day,” says Roland Powell, linen group leader, of his carts full of sheets and blankets. “For every cart we send over, they send one back from the floor. It’s an ongoing process.”

If the two-block trip seems amazing, just wait until the new clinical buildings open in 2011. A 30,000-square-foot kitchen will be serviced by the towline, which will then stretch for two miles.

“It’s really unique to have all of your back-of-the-house functions together like this in a cluster,” says Grant. “You add it all up, between linen, trash, food and supplies, we’re estimating about 2,000 carts and 400 miles of cart traffic every single day. It’s like walking to New York City every day.”

Grant and his team, along with Facilities, worked with an outside firm to help them come up with the best system for Hopkins. “You’ll find it at the Army distribution centers, maybe at FedEx,” he says, “but you won’t find this in any hospital.”

The new tunnel also is restricted to employees who work there, which makes for a more efficient system. “In the old world,” says Grant, “these 2,500-pound tugs would pull the carts through the tunnels where you have patients, staff, visitors, all trying to maneuver through at the same time.” Now a camera system makes sure that the general public doesn’t stray into the area and also pinpoints problems should the system shut down.

Steve Cawunder, towline operations manager, makes sure the towline is running almost all the time. “We’re figuring about once a year all these wheels have to be greased and checked and whatnot,” says Cawunder, who ran the printing department for 35 years before switching jobs. “There’s two big electric motors—they’re about 19 horsepower apiece—that drive this whole thing. Every four months we make adjustments.”

Bill Kennett, senior director of supply chain management, says he’s pleased about how cooperative employees on the line have been. “We have the trash guys moving linen carts and the linen guys moving trash carts. Everything has worked out.

“There’s no weight limit on what the towline will pull,” he continues. “But there’s a weight limit on what our guys can push.”

–Mary Ellen Miller



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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