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NIH Record

Moving Mountains (of NIH Mail)

By Pam Dressell

On the Front Page...

Mail -- it's one of those services we take for granted, with deliveries both at home and in the workplace. Few people consider the effort involved in getting the mail promptly to the right destination. But consider these numbers for a moment: 21,000 customers receiving 30,000 pieces of mail daily in 80 buildings (on and off campus) with 1,000 different mail stops. The staff of the Mail Services Branch within the Office of Research Services encounters mountains of mail like this every day and constantly seeks new, improved methods to get it to you -- twice a day!


Lisa Harper, lead mail clerk at Rockledge II, uses mail cluster boxes and the mail repository in her building.

Realizing how much NIH relies on the mail to conduct business, the Mail Services Branch has initiated a number of streamlining efforts. A new initiative currently under way is the migration from "door to door" mail delivery to "clustered" mail delivery. A study comparing 11 government, military and academic institutions with mail operations similar in size and scope to NIH's identified clustered mail delivery as the most efficient and cost-effective method for high volume multi-facility applications. Sixty percent of those organizations studied used clustering with lower overall costs and less manpower.

How does clustered mail service work? The cluster arrangement is similar to a post office with assigned P.O. boxes. Generally, each building or building complex will have one strategically located "cluster" room. Each existing mail stop will be assigned a secure, key-operated mail box sized to accommodate the volume of mail received. Since the mail box can hold larger volumes of mail, ICs will be encouraged to consolidate some of their existing mail stops and use one larger cluster box. Mail will be deposited in the boxes twice daily at regularly scheduled times by MSB staff. ICs will manage the distribution of keys and designate individuals who have access to the boxes. Those people can pick up the mail for their area at any time during the day. There will also be interoffice and domestic mail slots where outgoing mail may be deposited and, like the U.S. Postal Service, pickup schedules will be posted and mail collected at the specified times.

Coming Up: Converting to Clusters

Converting to clustered mail service will enable the Mail Services Branch to continue providing twice-daily delivery of incoming and pickup of outgoing mail -- at guaranteed times. In a survey of mail managers, this was deemed an important factor when considering any changes in mail service.

Clustering has already been successfully implemented in six NIH buildings: 9 and 45 on campus, and off-campus in the Federal Bldg., Executive Plaza, Rockledge, and 6100 Executive Blvd. Clustered service will be phased into other buildings over the next 2 years with full implementation expected by September 2000.

Slated for the next conversion to clustering are Bldgs. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 30 and 31. To prepare NIH'ers for the conversion, John Hunt, Mail Services Branch chief, and Warren Spinks, mail operations manager, have been spreading the word about this change in service. They have conducted briefings with IC executive officers, mail managers and other user groups. ORS wants to make sure that everyone is well-informed and that the conversion runs smoothly.

Evan Holly uses the Paragon mail processing system.

In addition to the mail clustering project, the Mail Services Branch has initiated a number of other enhancements to keep the mail flowing smoothly and rapidly. Have you noticed that interoffice mail makes it from point to point sooner than before? Several months ago, MSB began sorting and handling interoffice mail as a high priority and separately from U.S. Postal Service mail, cutting delivery time in half and, in most cases, guaranteeing next-day delivery.

In May 1997, MSB deployed a 5-person customer service team responsible for handling customer inquiries and to serve as liaison between NIH and the U.S. Postal Service. The team also reviews and processes an average of 200 pieces of "unidentified mail" daily. This includes tracking down the many employees who move from one location to another at NIH without notifying MSB, as well as envelopes addressed with only the recipient's name. Customer inquiries are followed up with site visits to make sure the situation is resolved and the customer is satisfied.

Equipment Upgrades, Improvements

The central mail hub at North Stonestreet has upgraded many outdated pieces of equipment and now functions more efficiently. It uses a high-speed sorting machine to expedite the massive sorting process for incoming mail using less staff. With this machine, 6 workers can sort 25,000 pieces in a day. Previously used manual methods would require 10 employees to sort the same number of pieces. They also use 6 new postage metering systems that can handle 200 pieces of mail per minute. All 6 systems can run simultaneously, if necessary.

Accountable mail tracking system uses bar code technology.

Another enhancement that will ensure the control and delivery of accountable mail (i.e., registered, certified, insured, and Express Mail as well as NIH specials) to IC mail stops and mail rooms is the use of bar code scanners. These scanners will track each piece of accountable mail from the time it is received in the central mail facility to delivery to the addressee. This device is also used as an automated trip ticket to monitor the arrival and departure of MSB staff responsible for handling and delivering this mail. When delivering mail to each mail stop, the drivers scan a bar code attached to the mail slot and the time, location, and mail group number is electronically logged. Data are reviewed by managers to make sure the drivers make deliveries according to schedule and are also used to make scheduling adjustments when necessary.

Safety First

Not only does it try to keep the mail moving, MSB also has employees' safety in mind. Were you aware that the MSB has an x-ray machine similar to those used at airports? Letters and any suspicious parcels are scanned as soon as they arrive at the Stonestreet facility to prevent harm coming to NIH employees from letter bombs or other potentially hazardous items.

Larry Vann puts a package through the x-ray scanner.

MSB senior staff meet with IC mail managers quarterly to exchange information. Customer service reps are also available to provide training in proper mailing procedures to ICs upon request. One issue they can assist with is how to achieve cost-savings on bulk and other special mailings. NIH ICs frequently use contractors to help with bulk mailing projects. Contract firms generally mark mail "Priority" or "First Class" regardless of the urgency. In many cases the mail can be sent at the standard or special standard rate and still reach its destination on time. Using standard or special standard rates is significantly less expensive than priority or first class. For example, a large mail project sent at the priority rate that costs $100,000 could be mailed at the standard rate for approximately $75,000. If the mailing qualifies for the special standard rate it would cost approximately $51,000.

Holly revs up the Novak mail sorter.

Mail Operations Manager Warren Spinks passes on these tips that customers can use to help expedite the mail:

  • Use the Zip+4 and mail stop codes

  • Use proper return addresses

  • Update your mailing keys

  • Call MSB's Customer Service Team at 496-3586 before undertaking large mailing projects or for any mailing needs. They can help you save time, money and effort.

These tips and other useful information will be available in a comprehensive Mail Services Guide that will be widely distributed across NIH and installed soon on the Web. Visit the ORS home page at

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