479 NEWS

Members Build Emergency Covid-19 Hospitals

A group of members from IATSE Local 479 were part of a team hired to build two emergency hospitals to help Georgians in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many people living in Georgia’s rural counties lack access to comprehensive medical services, relying instead on regional hubs to fill that need. An early outbreak of Covid-19 in Albany propelled that region’s death rate to the same levels as Italy and New York City, demonstrating Georgia’s need for additional facilities for rural outbreaks.

New York Times article entitled "Days After a Funeral in a Georgia Town, Coronavirus 'Hit Like a Bomb'"

In March, Homer Bryson, Director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), indicated the state might establish mobile modular units. that could be built alongside hospitals. By April, that consideration had turned to action and Atlanta-based BMarko Structures was selected to design, fabricate and deliver emergency modular hospital units to two different Georgia hospitals in the span of one month.

As CEO of BMarko, Antony Kountouris, knew his company was capable of producing the product, but the deadline on this project was going to require an effort beyond anything they had attempted to date.

When Local 479 member Scott Miller’s phone rang, the last thing he expected was an offer of employment – the film industry had rapidly shut down due to Covid-19 and it was unlikely to re-open anytime soon. As a Construction Coordinator Scott was familiar with unusual builds, however the scope and speed of this new project seemed wildly ambitious.

The Liberty Box Concept

During the Second World War American ship builders were hired to produce a fleet of cargo vessels to replace those destroyed by Nazi submarine wolf packs.

Dubbed “Liberty Ships”, this new fleet was designed to reestablish shipping lanes to Europe. The speed at which each ship was produced was remarkable and came to represent America’s unstoppable resolve to defeat the Nazis.

Inspired by their historical namesakes, BMarko’s new containerized hospital “Liberty Boxes” would be produced and deployed at a rapid scale to assist Georgia in its war against Covid-19.

Scale model of a liberty box hospital.
Scale model of the Liberty Box hospital assembled in Macon.

Each Liberty Box would be fully furnished, complete with electricity and plumbing, functional headwalls for medical gas, featuring large ADA-compliant restrooms complete with a shower. When assembled into their final configuration, these boxes would become a miniature hospital, providing relief to established brick and mortar hospitals.

Scott was intrigued by the Liberty Box project and, unlike traditional contractors, the intense delivery schedule didn’t seem any different from the deadlines that he had faced in the film industry –  and besides, this wasn’t his first time building a hospital.  His first job straight out of college had been working on $30 million hospital builds as a construction superintendent. Now, at age 35 he is arguably the youngest Construction Coordinator working in Georgia’s film and television industry.

Of course he took the job.

Building a Factory

A warehouse had already been secured by BMarko, but a few things were still missing.

KOUNTOURIS: Yes, we had a facility in which to build Liberty Boxes, but since we were moving so quickly we still needed infrastructure. Scott was able to provide the tools and equipment – all of his stuff was on wheels. They just rolled it in and set it up. I needed a pop-up factory and that’s exactly what they gave me.

SCOTT MILLER: It was a perfect fit for me – I had hundreds of construction guys at my disposal, so I grabbed one of my 18 wheelers and drove over to the warehouse. It was empty, except for a folding table. That’s exactly what I’m used to walking into (in the film business) anyway, so I was like “Open the doors, let’s roll ‘em out and get going!”

KOUNTOURIS: In the early days things were moving so quickly that I didn’t have time to consider which industries our workers had arrived from prior to this job – we just needed people who could help us make things happen.

As it turns out, two of his three production managers would come from IATSE Local 479 (the third was Scott’s step-dad, Jim Tilghman, a residential remodeling contractor with a commercial construction background).

Scottie Miller and Jim Tilghman with a Liberty Box.

From Props to Boxes

Like most IATSE members around the country, Propmaster Marcus Cooley had been caught off guard by the rapid shutdown of the motion picture industry

In addition to working in the props department and other departments on productions in Atlanta, Marcus also rented his equipment to shows through his company Adventure Coast Rentals.

In the space of 48 hours, both his job and rental opportunities went into an indefinite holding pattern.

A friend who knew that Marcus had begun renting some of his equipment to FEMA made him aware of the Liberty Box project. As it turns out, Marcus and Scott already knew each other from a prior television project and like Scott, Marcus didn’t blink at the formidable schedule – his experience with similarly intense build periods and tight shooting schedules would make him a valuable addition to the team.

“All Hands On Deck”

As anyone who works in the film industry can tell you, schedules are subject to change at a moment’s notice. As a result, every department has developed an ability to adapt, and that adaptability was particularly helpful for the Liberty Box project.

KOUNTOURIS: These aren’t the type of deadlines we typically encounter in the construction industry, so we benefited from the experience and resources of our film people. For instance, we needed a 120kW generator dropped at the warehouse ASAP and within 2 hours we had one on location, with a full tank of gas. That was great. That just doesn’t happen in our business.

SCOTT MILLER: That’s film for you. We solve big problems, fast, because we have to.  From conception to completion, film crews tend to be mobile, tactical, accurate, and are highly responsive to the problems they encounter.

COOLEY: Scott, myself, Alan Hudgins… these are people who are used to working as heads of departments – we deal with those kinds of problems every single day.

MILLER: We ran our crews the same way we run a construction mill in the film business.  Two shifts, with each shift working a typical 12 hour day. The effort generally ran for 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, until the boxes were ready to ship.  One of the terrific things about this job is how many people it employed at a moment when so many were poised to go onto unemployment. I love to support my local and appreciate the skills and assets of the people that work for me – for this project I was able to hire a lot of my crew from the film industry.

Fabrication Lessons from the Past

Once the criteria for a completed Liberty Box had been established the team looked for a production model that would allow them to mass produce the units efficiently. Fortunately, they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel – they just needed to look back 100 years.

MILLER: The first thing you think of with mass-production is Henry Ford’s assembly line system for building the Model T. We divided the assembly of each container into steps, then we assigned teams of specialists to each step. Each of our teams developed muscle memory for the work it took to complete their particular task. Each time a step was completed the Liberty Box would roll down the line to the next station, where a new team would swing into action with their particular installation. For instance, when a box moved to the electrical team they knew exactly where to run the wires and where the connections would be. The process improved with every unit we did because we were working with a template.

BMarko’s Liberty Box Factory in Lawrenceville was cranking out 3 completed units per shift, and since there were two shifts every day they were able to produce 6 Liberty Boxes every day.

Protecting the Crew

Just because they were working to a deadline didn’t meant that the construction crews threw caution to the wind.

COOLEY: We were super fortunate. We had hundreds of people working on this project and nobody got sick because people followed safety precautions. Our crews washed their hands and they wore masks.

MILLER: Early on I distributed a PDF of the safety protocols our crew would use for this build. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was a must. You have to wear a hardhat on construction jobs – so on this job you had to wear a mask and gloves. We were constantly cleaning work areas. I had my guys load denatured alcohol into garden pump sprayers and walk around the warehouse spraying everything down every hour on the hour. They sprayed tools, they sprayed work surfaces, they sprayed everything. We had one person who was sick, so we put him into a hotel room until he was cleared to return to work. Other than that one caution, I am unaware of any of our crew getting sick. And that was really the whole point of this build – our effort would have been wasted if we had to put 12 of our guys into the hospital we were building. There’s an old proverb that says “A ship without a Captain is just as doomed as a ship without a crew.”

Delivery & Installation

The first installment of Liberty Boxes were delivered to the Phoebe Putney Hospital in the virus-stricken City of Albany area in mid-April.

While he supervised the delivery to the hospital in Albany from afar, Marcus was boots on the ground when the second installment was delivered to a parking lot at Macon’s Medical Center, Navicent Health.

A team from Choate Construction provided site selection, constructed foundations, extended utility services, connected BMarko’s prefabricated containers into their final configuration, connected plumbing/mechanical/electrical systems between containers and made final connections.

The foundations for Macon’s emergency hospital had been started on April 16 and the facility was completed by May 8.

Photo Gallery of Installed Hospital

Aerial image of Macon Liberty Box hospital.

Film Flexibility Pays Off

Because schedules were moving so quickly drawings didn’t always match final site conditions, requiring nimble thinking in the field.  Using his iPad Pro, Marcus was able to sketch a reconfigured ramp design and transmit it to the architectural team for evaluation and approval. Within hours a stamped set of drawings were sent back, with his suggested changes in place.

COOLEY: It was like working film. When I’ve worked as a production designer, I call in my changes based on the tech scout to my art director and changes are made on the fly by the set designer back at the office. That’s pretty much how we do it every day in our business. And the methods applied well in this setting.

The BMarko team was continually impressed by the initiative and flexibility demonstrated by the film workers, who seemed prepared for any obstacle or last minute change.

Career Milestone

There is undeniable pride in the voices of everyone interviewed for this article. The ability of this team to deliver a high quality product on such a tight deadline is a career milestone they won’t soon forget.

At the end of the project several of the local film workers were offered continuing employment from BMarko, demonstrating that the skills that our members possess have real world applications that can sustain a need for income. 

Locations Department member Gabby Williamson, from IATSE Local 728, accepted a full-time job as resource manager with the company.

Ready for Return of Film Business

Scott and Marcus remain committed to returning to film.

MILLER: I was making more than $100k straight out of college and I was getting a lot of bonuses, but I didn’t love the work. When I switched over to film I was making less, and although I didn’t have any benefits, at first, there wasn’t a glass ceiling – and that means a lot to me. I love that. The film business fits who I am. If I could pick any job in the entire world, it would be working in film. I get a lot of satisfaction out of our industry, it’s perfect for me.

COOLEY: Helping to build these hospital units has been a rewarding experience, personally and professionally.  It was great to keep the morale up and to see that there are other opportunities out there.  There may never be another project where all my skills can shine like they did for this project, where 100% of what I know and what I can do, came together. Everything I learned over the past 11 years came into play on this project, from design and construction to budgeting and improvisation.

Regarding Covid-19

COOLEY: As I understand it, these [boxes] aren’t going away – they are planning on a multi-year installation. The people from the hospitals have no doubt they’ll still be using the Liberty Boxes next January and February when cases spike again in the winter. This is personal for me – my wife has Type 1 diabetes and is considered “at risk”. This project has given depth to my discussions with friends who may be skeptical about the virus – by putting a face they know on this topic makes a difference. Once they understand the scale of this project from someone they personally know, well – we are able to engage on the realities happening in these hospitals – and in times like this we really need to rally around each other.

Spotlighting Our Members

Our members are using their initiative to find new ways to assist their fellow citizens during this long hiatus. Thanks to Scott Miller and Marcus Cooley for helping with this story. Other members who participated on the project team included Omar Ali (Set Dec), Keith Cooley (Props), and Alan Hudgins (Construction). Thanks to Antony Kountouris of BMarko Structures and Amy Blanco of Choate Construction for providing additional information.

During this unprecedented period in our history we are bringing you stories about your fellow members.  If you know of a Local 479 member doing good work in their community, please reach out to Drew Duncan, Communications Director, via email to share the story.