AFMC Command News

AEDC Commander holds second COVID-19 town hall

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks

In the second of what he intends to make a weekly occurrence during the operationally urgent posture now in place, Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty took to social media April 15 to provide updates on the COVID-19 situation at Arnold Air Force Base.

During the virtual town hall, Geraghty answered questions submitted by base personnel on a wide range of topics, including pay for contractors not working under the current posture, risk mitigation measures at Arnold and the return to normal mission execution operations.

An “Operationally Urgent” posture effect took effect at Arnold on April 6, just three days after the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported on the base. During this posture, some mission activities are curtailed and access to the installation is limited to those employees required to complete critical test missions and support functions. This posture also enhanced screening measures put in place at Arnold on March 21.

As he did during his April 8 town hall, Geraghty reiterated throughout his April 15 update that his three main priorities are to take care of the workforce, execute as much of the mission as possible, and ensure members of the workforce take care of each other.

Below are some of the questions from the April 15 Facebook Live session and Geraghty’s responses. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Does Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act apply to contractors here at Arnold?

A: The CARES Act provides flexibility to government agencies to be able to pay contractors in situations where previously we would not have been able to pay contractors, and the most striking example here is that we’ve always been very clearly barred from paying contractors for work that was not performed. The CARES Act, although it’s not as simple as it sounds, seems to give some relief or some authority for the government to be able to pay contractors under certain conditions when they were unable to perform that work purely due to this COVID crisis. It’s not quite that simple, and my team is working through that very hard right now to figure out the exact mechanics of how that might be able to work, if we can make it work.

However, that was kind of the good news. The bad news is that although we might have flexibility, we don’t have funding. A big aspect of the CARES Act is that it says “upon the availability of funds.” I want to take a little bit of time to explain how the Air Force Test Center and how AEDC gets funding.

The bottom line up front is that if at the snap of the fingers I could say, “Yep, the CARES Act lets me pay the contractors as if this crisis isn’t happening,” I could snap the fingers and start to pay all the contractors just like that. Because I don’t have any extra funding from the federal government, the CARES Act didn’t provide any money to do that. It just gave us contractual flexibility possibly to do that. So if I were to snap the fingers and say, “Pay the contractors during this COVID crisis as if the COVID crisis was not happening,” what I’d really be doing is taking their pay, taking the contractors’ pay from June, July and August, and paying it to them now.

Let me explain that a little bit better in case that doesn’t make sense. Picture AEDC as a business and our business is selling critical information. That’s what we do. We have partners in national defense who need critical information about their systems. It might be an aircraft developer who wants to know the answer to the question, “Is my engine going to work at this altitude and these temperatures under these conditions?” We sell them that information. We can give them that information, and those national defense partners pay for that. They pay the Test Center. They pay Arnold Engineering Development Complex for that critical information.

If that’s the widget we make at AEDC and that’s what we sell, right now during the COVID crisis many of our customers said, “You know what, we can’t buy any of that information right now,” because we can’t travel or because of stay-at-home orders or various other different things, all of these risk mitigations that the Department of Defense and installation commanders are taking across the country right now, that put a stop on a lot of orders. So the widget that we make, a lot of orders got canceled in the short-term.

What that means for AEDC is we’re not getting paid because we’re not selling that product that is our core business. Coming into a fiscal year under normal circumstances we would say, “We expect to get this much test done. The pie is going to be this big this year, so let’s make sure we have a workforce who is trained and ready to execute that big of a pie, make that many widgets of critical test information for the national defense posture.” And we would get that much money. Our partners would buy that much critical information, that much test from us.

Now, because of COVID-19 and all the cancellation of orders, they can only buy this much smaller amount of information from us, this much smaller capability. So, unlike the airlines, for example, who, obviously, they had a bunch of customers cancel and say, “I can’t fly,” “I’m not taking that vacation,” “I’m not going to see my parents,” “I’m not going to the wedding,” all of that, the airlines, I believe, I could be wrong on this, but I think the airlines got specific appropriations from Congress to say, “Hey, I recognize, airlines, this is not your fault. We’re going to help make you whole so you don’t completely fail and go bankrupt, so here is money to cover your losses and get you through these months.” AEDC and the Air Force Test Center did not get appropriations with the CARES Act.

Unless we get that appropriation or some new stream of money that is nowhere on the books right now, I have less money to pay the same people I thought I was going to have a much larger amount of money to pay. If the CARES Act meant that I could just pay everybody as if COVID was not happening, because we don’t have that same size of pie, all I would really be saying is, “We’ll pay you now but we’re going to be out of money here pretty soon, so I’m going to have to ask you to take the rest of the fiscal year off without pay.” I don’t want to do that. I think that’s just additional uncertainty that adds to the challenge that everyone’s already facing.

I would like to be able to continue the mission for the entire rest of the fiscal year. My senior leaders know the challenge we’re under fiscally. We’ll see what happens about that, but I can tell you that the team and I are working feverishly to try to get answers, and possibly the funds to implement the CARES Act as I think it was intended.

Q: Is AEDC actively pursuing any course of risk mitigation that would open the door for those hundreds of folks at home if they start earning that reimbursable budget back?

A: Yes, we’re actively pursuing methods to get back to work as soon as possible. Again, priority number one is still priority number one, so I’m not going to accept additional risk to the health of the workforce in order to get back to work sooner.

What we’re trying to do is secure more personal protective equipment so that we might be able to introduce more elements of the mission. A key element of protecting the health of people is just keeping them at home, so we are going to have to do that to some extent.

But we may be able to start to introduce elements of the mission back in without accepting additional risk to the health of the workforce if we can get the right personal protective equipment, which is in pretty short supply, as you might expect, across the United States and across the Department of Defense. But we’re actively pursuing trying to get more of that personal protective equipment.

That’s the most active measure that we’re taking, but we’re also looking very carefully at the risk level that we’re taking. Although I said we’re not going to accept additional risk, we’re making sure we understand the problem thoroughly. We have some super-smart engineers and safety experts doing the math on precisely what the risk is of a human getting infected.

You can see what the risk is and the numbers just in the state of Tennessee. You can do the math on what’s the infection rate, what’s the death rate. We look at those numbers and we plug them into a risk matrix that we’ve worked with for decades in the test enterprise, which is a probability of an event happening versus the consequence of that event. You can plug in numbers into that risk matrix to understand how much risk you are taking to the health of the workforce.

I’ve made it clear – the level of risk that I am not willing to accept is high or medium risk of death or long-term hospitalization to anybody on Team AEDC. That is exactly why we have taken the measures that we’ve taken. We have done the math. We’ve made sure that we are not accepting those high or medium levels of risk. We will accept a low level of risk and will mitigate that risk with all of these measures.

Those higher or medium levels of risk are the types of risk that sometimes the uniformed military has to go take for national defense. Sometimes they have to go give their lives. I am not asking any of our civilians or contractors, or even the uniformed members of Team AEDC, to go sacrifice their lives to COVID-19 in order to get some of our critical tests done.

There’s also an element of time here. Time is going to decrease the risk locally here in Tennessee, it’s going to decrease the risk out at Tunnel 9 in Maryland, it’s going to decrease the risk out at NFAC (National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex) in California, all of which are locations where I’m effectively the installation commander. We are just now approaching what is expected to be the peak infection rate in all three of those locations for COVID-19.

I’m not planning on taking any steps back in our risk mitigation posture. We’re still on the strong defense as we approach the peak of the infection rate.

Q: Are we now allowing people from “hotspots” back on the base? For instance, if we have a critical test engineer who lives in Nashville, does he have a means to get on the base and perform that critical work?

A: The quick answer to that one is “no.” Somebody who lives in Nashville doesn’t have a method to get to work, but that’s because that is such a high-risk area.

We do have methods in place to do what’s called “enhanced screening” for critical mission workers who perhaps live in one of those hotspots that is a lesser hotspot. Rutherford County, I think, is up to 200-and-something cases right now, so it’s definitely not Davidson County, the Nashville city limits where they’ve got 1,000-plus.

We have a method of enhanced screening that we pioneered out in Maryland at Tunnel 9 where the infection rate blossomed greater than it has here in Coffee County and Franklin County. We’re able to go through a series of questions and analysis on a person’s lifestyle if they do live in one of those hotspot locations, make sure that they’re not introducing too much risk to the base by their patterns of life, make sure that they are not going to hospitals, for example, in one of those hotspot areas.

It gets down to that a little bit more nuanced risk mitigation than just the pretty blunt instrument we initially had of plain old “what’s a hotspot and what’s not.”

Q: When we get through this pandemic phase of life and we return to normal operations, do you foresee us having a new normal when we return to that status?

A: I think so. This is the way people change. This is the way societies change. This is the way work centers change.

I’ll get a little bit geeky here as a biology major. There’s a guy named Stephen Jay Gould who came up with a theory called Punctuated Equilibrium. This talks about how biology changes, and the data shows that it doesn’t just change gradually and get different gradually. It’s pretty static for a long time and then something pretty striking happens, something changes in the environment, and that makes biological beings change quite drastically, quite quickly, and then that’s the new equilibrium.

I anticipate that kind of thing could certainly happen for AEDC and for many workplaces throughout the United States and throughout the world. For one thing, people are figuring out how to work in this telework environment. That’s something that we talked about pretty close to just before this event happened. We talked about our telework policy at AEDC, and I said that I am open to changing our current telework policy if it works for the workforce and the mission.

I think this has been an experiment to a lot of people on Team AEDC as to how well telework works. Some sections are going to find that it works great and maybe they’re more effective than they were in the previous posture or previous policies.

I would ask that the supervisors who are noticing things that should change right now work together with their teams and, when we get back to that new normal or before we get back to that new normal, make it clear that here’s a policy that would really help our mission and our people. Even if it’s just your small group, let us know that so that we can make the policies that work for you and that work for the mission.

I don’t think we need to just go back to the normal before any of this happened. We’re learning some things as this happened, and we should take advantage of what we’ve learned, and if there are things that are better for our people and better for our mission, let’s implement those as fully as we can.

Q: What is the process we’re going through to make sure people on base are notified where positive cases occur?

A: When I get the word at my level, most of the people who are affected have been notified either by their direct supervisor or somebody in the local area or the building. That goes back to the critical point that I’m trying to stress throughout this crisis – that supervisors at every level have to be that key node of communication. Please don’t wait for me. Please don’t wait for that base-wide announcement to say there’s been another infection to tell the people in your building or in your team or in your workforce what you’ve found.

Our strategic priorities that we settled on at our strategic planning conference last year were focus and clarity and transparency. To be clear, be transparent, be honest with your people at every moment that you can.

Don’t rush to make an announcement if you hear the word COVID when you walk around the corner. Don’t start announcing, “There’s another case of COVID, everybody exit the building.” Make sure you understand the facts. But then be clear and transparent with the people in the building. If you know that there was a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in somebody who worked in building whatever last week and you’re the supervisor of a section in that building, nearby, let your people know that as soon as you know that.

By the time I have the chance to get that word out in a base-wide email, there have been many, many chances for supervisors, team leads, branch chiefs and commanders to get the word out to their workforce, that closer-to-the-event type of situation. So supervisors, team leads, I really encourage you to be the key node of communication, getting that word out.

Q: If an employee believes that they are not getting the information that they are seeking from their supervisor, what would you recommend that they do?

A: If you don’t feel like you’re getting the information you need from your supervisor, please ask them. And if they are stonewalling you or not responsive to your request for information and you let them know that’s what you’re perceiving out of them and they’re still not receptive, that’s when it’s time to go to the next layer in the chain and say, “Look, my supervisor is not giving me the key information that I need to stay safe, to get the mission done and to take care of each other. And I told my supervisor this and he’s still not receptive.”

If that’s happening, when that’s happening, I’d like that type of information to go all the way up to me. I would like to know when our supervisors are not communicating transparently and clearly.

Please don’t hesitate to ask for the information you need. When you feel like you’re not getting it, tell your supervisor that’s what you’re feeling. If they can’t give you a decent explanation as to what information they have or how hard they’re working for you to try to get that information from wherever they can get it, please elevate those concerns.

Q: As we get through this curve and we start to back out of various postures we’ve progressed through so far, do we have a plan for more touch-point cleaning going forward or issuing the cloth facemasks to DOD as mandated? Is there anything we’re doing to work through those options?

A: We do. One of the main things I asked the team to get an answer on this week is “How do we get cloth masks?” As we start to reintroduce elements of the mission, as we get through the peak infection rate and infections start to decline, there may come a point when cloth masks, the mandatory wearing of cloth masks, is going to be a sufficient health risk mitigation such that I can bring back more of the workforce and just issue them a mask, hand them a mask, that the government bought for them. I know that there’s a risk of infection just by bringing people together, but at some point the infection rate will decline to such a degree that a cloth mask is a sufficient risk mitigation to bring you back to work.

We are looking into that right now – how we buy them, what are the legalities of mandating wear of a cloth facemask for the contractor workforce, for the civilian workforce. That’s one of the questions that we’re looking into to help look forward to that posture when we’re going to be able to bring people back to work. And it’s probably not going to be everybody at once. It’s not going to be, “OK, the risk mitigation posture is over. Everybody report back to work.” I anticipate that it’s going to be a more gradual reintroduction of greater numbers of people in accordance with acceptable levels of risk and the appropriate measures to mitigate that risk.

Q: At what level will it be decided that we’re backing out of the posture we’re in? Would it be at your level or would it be at a different level?

A: That’s a challenging question. I think we’ve established a pretty good framework for thinking through this problem. To some extent, the division chiefs have the authority to reintroduce elements of the mission within the risk mitigation posture that we’ve already agreed upon as a command team. If they want to step outside of the risk mitigation structure that we’ve established as a team and we’ve agreed upon and thought thoroughly through across all the divisions and our legal counsel and our contracting leads and finance, if they want to step away from that agreed-upon, thought-out framework into a different posture, that would probably be at my level. If we need to establish a whole new framework for how we’re going to operate, that would be at my level.

But to the degree that they can reintroduce mission, bring people back to work right now within the current posture, within the current risk mitigation framework, I’m all for it and they have the authority to do so.

The town hall may be viewed at