Jacks of All Trades Keep Hospitals Humming

To be an engineer at NorthBay Healthcare, you have to be a jack of all trades, capable of performing rigorous maintenance routines on million-dollar machinery and fixing equipment you never knew existed. One day you might find yourself face to face with a swarm of bees. Or a sink hole. Or a sewer line break.

Anything is possible.

The cape is optional.

Engineer Frank Chavez starts his day at 7 a.m., making the rounds, checking in on electrical, medical gas, steam, water, air handling, HVAC, Fire/Life Safety and sewer systems that serve NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield.

Frank Chavez

“Temperature control is critical in a hospital,” he says, reviewing a map on his computer. He can see that the neurosurgery operating suite is a chilly 65 degrees, while the trauma bay in the Emergency Department is a toasty 78 degrees, as requested, all while maintaining required air pressures within those rooms to help with infection prevention.

Not only does he ensure that the climate is as requested, but a team of three other engineers maintain the chillers, boilers and cooling towers critical to sustaining those temperatures. One of them is always on call.

Robert Thrash, chief engineer at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital, is part of a three-man team with similar tasks.

It’s the best possible job for an engineer. You get to think on your feet and learn something new all the time. And you make a difference, because the team you serve is saving lives.

—Engineer Frank Chavez

Both hospitals have emergency generators that kick in within 10 seconds when power goes out. Those generators have to be tested every week, and “load tested” every month to make sure they can handle even more than the basics.

“Our engineers operate a wide variety of essential healthcare facility equipment and systems, and are expected to safely and effectively handle all types of emergencies to keep the hospital functioning at the highest level at all times,” explains Greg Duncan, director of plant operations.

“What happens if the medical gas system goes into low pressure alarm and stops providing oxygen or medical air to the hospital? What if a boiler used to provide steam for sterilization stops functioning? Our engineers must be able to handle these and countless other critical problems to hospital operations 24 hours a day, 365 days per year,” says Greg.

There are calendars filled with maintenance tasks that are performed and recorded throughout the year. First alarms must be tested. Transformers must be maintained. Permits must be stored for elevators, boilers, pressure vessels and more. And don’t even get Robert started on the cogeneration system, which takes an inordinate amount of attention.

“It’s worth it, though,” he says, noting that the system has saved NorthBay Healthcare millions of dollars in energy costs since it was installed nearly six years ago.

While half the job is dealing with regular maintenance and repair issues, the other half is dealing with the unique challenges that present themselves from day to day.

Robert got a call from Security one Friday night in July. A sinkhole had formed in the grassy area near the helicopter landing pad. “They’d roped it off by the time I arrived,” he recalls. By Saturday morning, an excavation team had been called to dig down and figure it out. By the end of the day, the sinkhole had been filled.

“Crisis averted,” says Robert.

In June, he came face to face with a swarm of bees near a construction trailer on campus. He teamed up with Environmental Services Manager Jeff Lipscomb and called in a local bee-keeping business. Within an hour, the bees were sucked safely into a shop vac for transport.

“You have to like to solve problems,” adds Frank. “It’s the best possible job for an engineer. There’s never a dull moment. You get to think on your feet and learn something new all the time. And you make a difference, because the team you serve is saving lives.”

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