USPHS: 100 Years of Engineering Service

From Superstorm Sandy to the Bering Sea, engineers of the U.S. Public Health Service are engaged in a range of missions to advance, protect and promote the health and safety of the nation.
By Rear Adm. Sven E. Rodenbeck, SC.D., P.E., BCEE, USPHS

Headquarters Building 21 (left) and the new Building 24 at CDC’s Roybal Campus in Atlanta, where significant facility upgrades and construction projects have been completed to modernize the agency’s headquarters complex. PHOTOS COURTESY USPHS

The mission of the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) is to advance, protect and promote the health and safety of our nation. For 100 years, USPHS engineers and architects have been true to that mission. As we celebrate our proud history of engineering service, we also look to the future concerning new facility-related activities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

The mission of USPHS is diverse and far-reaching. And that message hit home in fall 2012 when we supported, just weeks apart, our fellow citizens’ recovery after Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Conn.


In 1913, USPHS expanded its capabilities to help solve the technical problems associated with contaminated water by hiring its first sanitary engineer. Harry P. Letton worked at the Chicago Marine Hospital to improve the quality of the drinking water used on interstate carriers. Another six sanitary engineers were employed that year at the USPHS Ohio River Investigation Station: Harry R. Crohursts, Leslie C. Frank, Harry B. Hommon, John K. Hoskins (who became the first USPHS Chief Engineer in 1943), Harold W. Streeter, and Ralph E. Tarbett. Together, they formed the nucleus that provided the leadership that led to the expansion of the USPHS mission to address environmental public health concerns over the next century. Initially hired as civilians, some later obtained their commissions in the USPHS Commissioned Corps.

The work of these early USPHS engineers led to the first national standard for drinking water—the Drinking Water Standard of 1914. This Standard was revised in 1925, 1941, 1946 and 1962. In 1970, the newly established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumed responsibility for the national Drinking Water Standard. But to this day, the nitrate drinking water standard remains the same as proposed by USPHS.

Those early USPHS engineers also launched major campaigns to eliminate standing water in and around populated areas. The subsequent reduction in mosquito populations and corresponding decrease in malaria cases heralded the single greatest decrease in morbidity and mortality in U.S. history.

Since then, we have become involved with the development of new techniques, methods and devices to improve our environment and assure our workplaces, food, healthcare facilities and medical devices are safe. We help to ensure our nation’s most valued treasure—the health of the American people—remains secure.


USPHS engineers operate in traditional chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering disciplines and the evolving disciplines of biomedical, computer and environmental specialties. So as we proudly remember our 100th Anniversary, we continue to advance, protect and promote the health and safety of our nation. As we move forward into our next century of service, the contributions of USPHS engineers will include:

  • Preventing and controlling the spread of disease by designing and installing water treatment and delivery systems and wastewater collection, treatment and disposal systems that are sustainable for underserved populations.
  • Researching and evaluating occupational hazards to improve worker health and safety.
  • Evaluating the safety of medical devices and electronic products and inspecting domestic and international facilities where these products are manufactured.
  • Reducing environmental impacts from industrial, man-made and natural events.
  • Supporting the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act by setting performance standards and regulating tobacco products and manufacturers.
  • Providing guidance on designing, constructing and operating “healthy and sustainable” buildings.
  • Providing facilities management, planning and construction services for health care delivery facilities and laboratory research complexes.
  • Identifying, assessing and evaluating the health risks associated with hazardous waste sites, unplanned releases of hazardous substances and environmental contamination or pollution to prevent or reduce further exposure and possible illnesses.
  • Maintaining a mobile engineering force to respond to natural and man-made disasters.
  • Promoting and empowering individuals, tribes and communities in public health activities.

Tom Harkin Global Communication Center at the Roybal Campus, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. CDC is now developing a new master plan for the Roybal Campus that will cover the years 2015 to 2025.

Before the late 1990s, CDC’s Atlanta headquarters had not changed much since the establishment of the agency. At CDC’s Chamblee Campus, for example, laboratories were still housed in converted pre- World War II Army barracks. Corridors were packed with freezers containing pathogenic agents and bio-hazardous substances because there just was not enough room in the lab support areas. In most CDC buildings, laboratory and office work was done in a single large room where directional airflow could not be controlled and hazardous work could not be compartmentalized.

With help from the Atlanta business community and members of the Georgia Congressional delegation, CDC developed the 2000–2009 Master Plan. This overview prioritized building and facilities funding to replace antiquated, underperforming, or poorly-located facilities. Utilizing $1.5 billion specifically appropriated for facilities upgrade, CDC replaced 26 antiquated facilities— mostly laboratory buildings—with new, safe, flexible, modern space. The new facilities increased the available laboratory space, including more Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 and BSL-4 laboratories.

Not only do these facilities meet all applicable regulation and codes, they incorporate “green and sustainable” elements leading to LEED Silver and Gold ratings. Some of these innovative sustainable design features include recycled content and low or no-volatile organic compound furnishings and finishes, walking trails and storm water cisterns for stormwater management and irrigation.

With the 2000–2009 Master Plan successfully implemented, CDC is now developing a new master plan for its Atlanta Roybal Campus that will cover 2015 to 2025. In December 2012, the agency began the scoping phase of master plan activities, which is being guided by the development of an Environmental Impact Statement. The process will include the examination of potential growth in agency mission, laboratory and laboratory support space, office space, and personnel.


IHS, in cooperation with Alaska Native health corporations and the Denali Commission, designed and constructed replacement hospitals in Barrow and Nome, Alaska. The new Barrow hospital is scheduled to be completed in June 2013; it replaces the 1965 wood frame hospital that could no longer support the health care delivery needs of the community. The new Nome hospital was dedicated on Nov. 14, 2012, replacing the existing 1948 ambulatory care facility and 1977 hospital.

Construction supplies for the newly completed Barrow and Nome Alaska Replacement Hospitals leave Seattle. Both projects required complex logistics plans given the short window to ship materials to Alaska. Work had to be timed so enough construction materials would be on hand to last until the next barge season.

A unique aspect of both these projects is the logistical planning that had to be carried out. All of the construction material and equipment had to be brought by barge from Seattle and timed so that enough materials would be on hand to last until the next barge season. Failure to deliver sufficient building materials or equipment during the barging season would have delayed the projects and increased costs significantly given the expense of air transport.

The Barrow replacement hospital construction was particularly challenging because the city is accessible from the sea for only two months a year, from mid-July to September. Because of Barrow’s short summer, the concrete floor was poured in October when the temperature was about -5°F. To conduct the subzero concrete pour, the gravel was stored in a heated warehouse, then trucked in vehicles with insulated beds, batched with mixer trucks in an enclosed, heated area, and finally pumped in insulated pipes to cement buggies for placement.

Permafrost is an issue at both locations. Both replacement hospitals used a 6-ft to 10-ft insulated gravel pad with driven steel pile foundations. The Barrow hospital has 12-in piles driven 35-ft to 60-ft below grade and includes a thermal break between the pile and pile cap. The Nome hospital used 18-in piles and incorporated thermal piles to keep the pad frozen.

The Barrow replacement hospital was designed and constructed under the P.L 93-638 Title V new construction project program, which provides tribal governments more control and decision-making authority. In 2009, the Denali Commission provided the design funding totaling $15 million of the approximately $160.1 million needed for facility construction. An appropriation to IHS accounted for the remaining construction funds. The new 100,000-ft² hospital is four times larger than the old one. It includes 10 single patient bed rooms, 15 outpatient exam rooms, four emergency room beds, and various specialty clinic rooms (such as audiology, endoscopy services, optometry, and CT and other diagnosis capabilities).

The 150,000-ft² Nome hospital is triple the size of the one it replaced and brings together under one roof primary care, ambulatory surgery, pharmacy, diagnostic imaging, emergency room, public health nursing, dental and laboratory services. The facility provides 18 beds in private rooms, including two designated for labor and delivery. Because the airlines have announced they will no longer transport medical gas (oxygen bottles), an oxygen medical gas generator is now located onsite. Total funding for the construction was approximately $167.6 million, with $142.5 million funded from the American Recovery and Resource Act, $15 million from the Denali Commission, and $10.1 million from IHS general appropriations.

The successful completion of both hospitals was achieved through the collaboration of management, engineering and construction expertise among the Norton Sound Health Corporation (Nome), the Arctic Slope Native Association (Barrow), IHS Engineering Services in Seattle, and IHS Alaska Area Native Health Service Office.


USPHS officers provided key leadership and support during the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) response to Superstorm Sandy. This service involved more than 450 USPHS officers and was the largest deployment since Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. USPHS engineers were members of various response teams including USPHS Rapid Deployment Force Teams 1, 2 and 3 and several of the USPHS Regional Incident Support Teams and National Incident Support Teams. In addition, USPHS officers detailed to various HHS operating divisions and non-HHS agencies (National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency), assisting those organizations in helping the affected communities recover from the storm’s impact.

Soon after, at the request of the state of Connecticut, USPHS deployed more than 28 mental health providers after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. These officers provided mental health and social service support to the families in the community affected by the tragedy.


USPHS engineers and architects stand ready to respond to the ever-changing health needs of our nation.

With the support of our military and private sector colleagues, we will continue to “Engineer for Life” for the next 100 years.

By Rear Adm. Sven E. Rodenbeck, Sc.D., P.E., BCEE, USPHS, is Chief Engineer, U.S. Public Health Service. He can be reached through Lt. Cdr. James Kohler, P.E., USPHS, at 703-347-8953 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..