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Networking the Nightingale

With less than a week to install the IT infrastructure of the Nightingale Hospital in London’s ExCel centre, Block and its CEO Marc Chang were set the professional challenge of a lifetime.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2020 7 min read

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Block CEO and founder Marc Chang worked hard with his team to install the Nightingale’s IT infrastructure.

Marc Chang is used to kitting out hospitals with the IT infrastructure they need to support clinical work, as well as the wifi requirements of the patients, visitors and suppliers that come and go through their doors. But faced with a seven-day timeline to network the new Nightingale Hospital for coronavirus patients in London’s ExCel centre, his first reaction was: “This is a monumental ask, but absolutely something we can help with.”

CEO and founder of networking specialists Block, Chang had provided its long-standing client Barts Health NHS Trust with emergency support in the past, including the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack. Then a phone call from the Trust presented Chang and the Block team with another unprecedented challenge.

“I picked up the call on the Wednesday lunchtime,” recalls Chang, who is based in London, “and was told the plan was to open on Saturday.”

“At the time we didn’t really know what was coming, but we’d been hearing the reports coming out of Italy and Spain, and we’d seen the speed at which they’d built the hospitals in China, which was incredible. This felt like something of such significance that we were perfectly placed to help with, so we had to get involved.”

Having previously worked with the Evelina London Children’s Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’s, and Great Ormond Street Hospital, Chang was not fazed by the infrastructure requirements of the job. “The biggest challenge was the sourcing of equipment and the sheer amount of unknowns and risk we had to deal with,” he says. “We were building something in a week that we’d normally build in a year. We had to find a balance between the rapid commissioning of a network and the checks and balances we’d usually go through.”

Mobilising the workforce

Working closely with Barts Health NHS Trust and Block’s technology partner, Cisco, Chang mobilised 60 people from his 200-strong team across the Block group of companies. As specialist providers of networking solutions for healthcare and retail, the company had the skills and staff for the job, but they’d never worked on a hospital of that size at that pace before.

Chang worked intensively with his team on-site, toiling alongside other contractors, engineers and the British Army to create a hospital with capacity for 4,000 ICU beds and 16,000 staff. Their initial critical path was to have 500 beds in operation within a week.

The networking needs of a hospital are many and complex. Wireless access points, infusion pumps, CT scanners, oxygen canisters, IP (internet protocol) phones, video consultations, and wifi-enabled wearable sensors are just some of the technologies used. Many devices feed data into back-end applications that provide clinical staff with essential records.

Chang also had to ensure the right cyber security was in place and that the network would provide critical service for a year.

Barts’ original ambition was to create a truly digital, wireless hospital, but sourcing the right equipment quickly enough in the middle of lockdown hampered this, as did interference from radar at London City Airport nearby. The project went ahead with a mix of wireless and wired facilities.

Consisting of two massive halls, each a kilometre long, the ExCel centre is bisected by a wide central boulevard, and military personnel and many contractors were already working on site when the Block team arrived.

“We were all called to a town hall briefing, where we were told we were regarded as part of the NHS family and that we were there to save lives. The real purpose of the project was distilled into that moment. It was very moving for me and the team”Marc Chang, CEO, Block

“The speed at which the Army operates is incredible,” says Chang. “There were 43 rows of beds in each hall, and they were erecting cubicles for them at a rate of knots and rolling out co-ordination and comms.”

Chang, Cisco and his team had to develop a working model they could scale out quickly. Collectively they devised what they call “Nightingale in a Box” – a standardised approach for each row. “That enabled us to move at pace with a very simple design that everyone in the implementation process understood,” says Chang, adding that it was not the time to experiment with anything too cutting edge. “We pared it back to the core essentials.”

As well as the beds, there were ancillary areas that needed to be networked – an ops centre in a disused coffee outlet, pathology labs, a pharmacy, recuperation areas for staff, connectivity for the London Ambulance Service, security facilities, back offices and a mortuary.

The tight deadline meant the team had to work round the clock, organised into six-hour sprints, starting at 8pm, 2am, 8am and 2pm. Chang ensured everyone was clear about their roles and responsibilities, with video calls before every shift outlining the tasks and complexities that lay ahead.

“A lot of the time, what can slow things down is the decision-making,” says Chang. “It’s about getting the right people in the room at the right time to make things happen. We got that decision-making structure in place early on.”

Working together as a team

And a commitment to the project was evident in all those involved, with the hospital, the military, the programme managers KPMG, the main contractor Mace, many tradespeople and Block’s own staff all pulling together as a team.

“We were in the middle of lockdown and I had to ask my people to leave their families and homes to come out to work at these hospitals,” says Chang, whose team was also tasked with building networks at the Nightingale hospitals in Harrogate and Bristol. “From the start, we didn’t obligate anyone to take part, but everyone put themselves forward to help in some way, including our sales team, back-office staff and project managers. Everyone felt a strong desire to help and do their bit.”

The mammoth operation required the installation of 500 – 600 wireless access points and around a thousand switches – devices that enable connectivity which Chang says at the time were “the networking industry’s equivalent of the elusive toilet roll”.

He is keen to stress his company was only one of many workstreams feeding into the project. As well as support from the healthcare client and Cisco, Chang’s suppliers and clients also pulled out all the stops, with one logistics company manager driving through the night to make a delivery himself.

Chang admits the project was probably the most intense of his 20-year career, which began with a temp contract on the helpdesk at Colt Telecom and saw him found Block 15 years ago. In 2017 the business acquired Innov8, a company that specialises in virtualised desktops for primary care, and in the past month has acquired the infrastructure firm Connect-IP. Chang has also found time to start up a fledgling cyber-security business called Socura. With offices in London and Crewe and warehousing in Sheffield, he reckons the companies as a group will report a turnover this year of £43m to £45m.

“Block is more than just a business. We’re here to make a difference,” Chang says. “Shortly before the London hospital opened, we were all called to a town hall briefing, where we were told we were regarded as part of the NHS family and that we were there to help save lives. The real purpose of the project was distilled into that moment. It was significant and very moving for me and the team.”

Block and Cisco have collated their recommendations into a blueprint for other businesses involved in building hospitals in similar circumstances. You can request a free copy by emailing covidresponse@block.co.uk .

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