Big supply depot in Pennsylvania lifeline for forces in U.S., abroad

Warehouse, largest in Defense Department, ships millions of items

War On Terrorism

October 30, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa. - Inside the Department of Defense's largest supply depot, south of Harrisburg, workers bustle round the clock under flags and patriotic banners in a warehouse more than 30 football fields long, pulling and packing supplies to meet the needs of the military.

With a one-day turnaround time on most orders, the Defense Depot Susquehanna Pennsylvania, or DDSP, seems like a short-order online shopping center. About 600,000 items are stocked here, from uniform ribbons to tank tracks - and almost everything in between, including parachutes large enough to air-drop a Humvee. But it doesn't do ammunition and weapons.

It's a lifeline for forces deployed at home and abroad, overseen by the Defense Logistics Agency in Fort Belvoir, Va.

The agency "plays a very vital role in supporting the war-fighter," said Gerda Parr, spokeswoman for the agency. "We manage over 4 million items; we process more than 30 million requests annually from the military services."

Parr said the agency describes its mission this way: "If our forces fight with it, wear it, eat it, burn it as fuel or otherwise use it, DLA probably provides it."

The agency's 28,600-member civilian and military staff works at more than 500 sites around the world. In Pennsylvania, DDSP's 1,700 staff members include many who have served in the military.

"Sixty percent of our work force is veterans," said spokeswoman Jackie Noble. "They know why what they're doing is so important."

Noble said it's tough to gauge the impact of current military operations on the orders, mainly because Sept. 30 is the end of the fiscal year and brings an annual flurry of purchases across the Department of Defense.

The warehouse is impressive in its scale and automation: Standing on a platform overlooking the work below, the room hums with machine noise, and people flow easily around automated supply carriers and sorters. And that's only the main building. Dozens of outlying warehouses store larger items, as well as hazardous materials, including paint and explosives.

On a recent morning, DDSP workers in the receiving area checked in arriving supplies, including furniture and colorful children's play mats (destined for military child-care centers), using wheeled carts that carry battery-powered computers. Forklifts carrying pallets from trucks gracefully skirt each other in long aisles bordered by boxes. "It's like a ballet," Noble noted, smiling.

At the edge of the receiving area, chain-driven pallet carts follow a track methodically around the warehouse. Workers can load supplies into one of 26,000 orange plastic "totes," load them on one of the 1,200 carts and tell the computer where the cart needs to go. Sensors along the track route the cart by reading a bar code on the bottom.

DDSP has drawn on commercial warehouse techniques to improve efficiency, Noble said. "Automation isn't always the answer," she said. "In larger warehouses, you see a combination of automated and manual work."

In the high-rise storage area, workers travel down aisles 290 feet long and 62 feet high on hybrid lifts, picking or stowing "fast-moving items from A to Z" from among the 243,000 storage bins, Noble said. In the event a lift breaks down or power goes out, these workers are trained to rappel.

The walk-and-pick storage area is the nuts and bolts of the operation: More than 5,000 red bins, lining three stories of rows, are filled with plastic packs of screws, lug nuts, washers, uniform ribbons, gaskets and the like. If only one is needed, only one is sent, picked and packed by hand. Workers cover each aisle using a mobile cart of mailing supplies and packaging information supplied by the computer.

Items are moved around continually to meet demand.

"Storage is a dynamic thing," said packaging specialist John Price. "You're always moving things in that are popular and moving things out as [demand] falls off."

In the shipping area, rows of wires hang like clotheslines, holding signs for regular customers such as the 10th Airborne Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., as well as other more cryptic acronyms denoting destinations around the world.

Air pallets traveling overseas are built on hydraulic pads that lower into the floor as the contents of the pallet grow, usually to heights of 6 feet or more. These will go to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Pallets for surface shipping will go to ports such as Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C.

DDSP has a second site nine miles away in Mechanicsburg, which stocks articles such as clothing, food and medical kits. Items are brought to Susquehanna for overseas shipping. On a recent day, a finished pallet of cold-weather clothing bound for Germany waited to go on a truck.

Not far away, Bill Pritchard, a 21-year employee, hooked together heavy fabric straps to secure a diverse pallet of vehicle doors, radiator coolant and "multipacks" - boxed assortments of small, miscellaneous items - also bound for Germany.

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