- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

John McLean’s blue uniform, friendly waves and chitchat as he drops off mail are what residents on his Bethesda route see.

After 21 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. McLean does not want to think about entering management. He likes being outside, and he likes his customers.

“I can say I love my job,” says the 48-year-old Savage, Md., resident.

On one of his daily rounds through downtown, a customer tells him, “Nice to see you.” His response is, “Nice to be seen.”

What is not seen is what happens to the mail customers hand him. He puts the mail in his carrier bag to take to the West Lake Station in Bethesda. Collectors, who also have routes and collect mail from post offices and blue collection boxes, take the mail to a processing and distribution center.

The collectors at the Merrifield Processing and Distribution Center, for instance, collect about 500,000 pieces of mail a day, says Gary Flather, manager of in-plant support, whose job is overseeing the processing equipment and staff at the Merrifield center, one of four processing and distribution centers in Northern Virginia.

“It’s a constant cycle. Mail comes in, mail goes out all day long,” Mr. Flather says.

Mail is processed through a Dual Pass Rough Cull System. The machinery is mechanized to separate mail by size and shape, sorting it into letters, flats (a category for magazines, advertisements and legal documents), postcards, small packages and bundled mail.

Mail is loaded into the Dual Pass Rough Cull System from 3-foot hampers, which the hamper dumper, located at the front end of the machinery, grabs and turns upside down onto a belt. The belt moves the mail along, sending it off in different directions along a series of belts for further separation, postmarking and stamp cancellation.

A ventilation filtration system, installed following the anthrax incident in October 2001 at the Dulles Processing and Distribution Facility in Loudoun County, cleans the air of any paper dust generated from the mail. A biodetection system collects air samples and conducts a DNA replication test to detect anthrax spores in letter mail as it is processed. The biodetection system is scheduled to be installed at all processing and distribution centers by the end of the year.

“I’ve seen an increase in automatization and mechanization,” says Michael Whitlock, 53, of Alexandria, a mail handler at the Merrifield Processing and Distribution Center for 18 years. His job is moving mail within the facility and to the dock for loading onto trucks. “It’s improved mail flow. It makes our job easier,” he says.

Different types of mail are pulled off the Dull Pass Rough Cull System for further sorting. Four flat sorting machines, for example, sort flat mail down to the ZIP code, and a small parcel and bundle sorter sorts parcels and bundled mail. Sixty machines process the mail, including 39 machines that handle letter mail.

Once the mail is sorted, the local mail is separated by ZIP code down to the carriers’ routes. Mail addressed to other states or overseas is dispatched by air, truck and train to another processing and sorting facility. The local mail is taken to the Delivery Bar Code Sorters or, if it does not have a bar code, to the automated Optical Character Reader (OCR). The OCR and other machines read the addresses on the mail, search for matches in a national address database and spray on the right bar codes, processing 25,000 pieces in an hour.

The bar code sorters sequence mail according to Delivery Point Sequencing (DPS), or the order in which the mail will be delivered on each carrier’s route. The sorters handle 30,000 pieces of mail in an hour.

“People drop a letter … and they expect that letter to be there … and it happens,” says Deborah Yackley, spokeswoman for the Capital Metro Area, which includes the Postal Service’s Northern Virginia District; the Capital District that covers Washington, D.C., and Southern Maryland; the Baltimore District; and the Richmond District.

That letter and other mail is taken by truck from the processing and distribution center to the actual post offices delivering it. Approximately 75 percent to 80 percent of the mail is already sorted in delivery sequence, but the rest must be sorted manually, including some odd-sized flats, stapled mail and letters the machinery at the processing and distribution center could not read. Distribution clerks do the sorting and have to know which streets and addresses go to each carrier.

“The vast majority of this mail has never been looked at by postal eyeballs … until the carriers get to the address to verify where it goes,” says Wayne Waters, supervisor of customer service support at the West Lake Station, which handles 91 routes in the 20814 and 20817 ZIP codes in Bethesda. The 126 carriers there deliver more than 24,000 pieces of mail a day.

Carriers come in at about 7 a.m. to prepare mail for the day. They spend three to four hours sorting magazines, catalogs, packages and mail handled by the distribution clerks. They pull mail out of trays and containers and place it in cubbyholes, a process called casing, for every delivery address on their routes.

Once finished, the carriers take the mail to the loading dock, where they pick up the DPS mail for their route. They use scanners to enter their start and end times, to check in at certain points along the route, to track deliveries and to scan in trackable items, such as express, registered and certified mail.

“It’s all in an effort to provide same-time, on-time delivery,” says Deitrice Willard-Ruffin, postmaster for six post offices in Bethesda.

Carriers at the West Lake Station deliver from 200 addresses up to the thousands, depending on the makeup of their routes. The average route has 300 to 350 addresses and can include business, residential, apartment and mounted stops with a cluster mailbox at curbside. Business routes, for example, typically have a larger volume of addresses than residential routes, because fewer stops are required to make the deliveries.

“It’s almost like being an ambassador on the street for the post office,” says Byron Young, a carrier at West Lake Station who was named the post office’s carrier of the year last year.

Mr. Young, 46, of Laurel, says he answers customers’ questions and even delivers stamps to them.

“I like interacting with folks on the route,” Mr. Young says. “I take a lot of pride in what I do. I try to give the best possible service I can do for them.”

Getting it delivered

The U.S. Postal Service offers the following tips for mailing letters and packages:

• Write legibly.

• Place the stamp in the upper right-hand corner and the return address in the upper left-hand corner.

• Address the envelope in the middle area with the name on the first line, followed by the business on the second line. On the third and fourth lines, keep separate the street address from the city, state and ZIP code.

• Use the correct state abbreviations.

• If the ZIP code is not known, look it up on the Postal Service’s Web site, www.usps.com. The Postal Service corrects wrong ZIP codes; however, providing the right city and state is important.

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