AFMC Command News

Testers unite in solution to transport COVID-19 patients

  • Published
  • By Katherine C. Gandara
  • Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center

Operational test experts from across the Department of Defense are working together in the fight to overcome a worldwide adversary – COVID-19. The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center is partnering with more than a dozen other organizations in response to the U.S. Transportation Command’s request for a Joint Urgent Operational Need for safely transporting COVID-19 patients within isolation pods on military cargo aircraft.

From 2014 through 2015, U.S. forces were deployed to assist in the mitigation of the humanitarian crises in West Africa due to the Ebola epidemic. AFOTEC joined with many of its current partners to conduct testing on a Transportable Isolation System. TIS is a palletized system that is made from existing protection equipment that consists of a clear plastic fabric hung from a metal structure enclosed with an associated blower and filter system. TIS can transport two to seven patients depending on their medical needs. However, TIS was not designed for the transport of airborne virus patients such as COVID-19.

With the urgent need to transport as many as 4,000 American citizens from overseas per month, the Portable Bio-Chemical Module, or PBCM, is one of several options the Air Force is considering to transport infectious patients. PBCM is an existing capability currently used by the Department of State. The PBCM is a hard roll-on-roll-off structure that holds four patients. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center is also developing its own solutions to carry a higher quantity of patients in the Negative Pressure Containment, or NPC module. The NPC, which will be tested immediately after PBCM, is a shipping container structure designed to transport more than 30 patients on a C-17 Globemaster III. NPC-lite will follow NPC and is intended for C-130 Hercules transport and multi-service use.

The PBCM Operational Utility Evaluation started toward the end of March. AFOTEC’s Detachment 2 test team from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida., led by Maj. Phillip Hoyt, deployed with key experts to meet with Air Mobility Command Headquarters and Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina operations personnel. As the test director, Hoyt was center point in ensuring the entire united test team was synced for this JUON. During the first week, the team’s focus shifted to first helping to solve TIS deficiencies that restricted the system from supporting immediate operations with COVID-19 infected patients. The team was then tasked by the AMC surgeon general to develop new decontamination procedures to allow greater TIS mission flexibility and quicker turn times. By the end of the first week, the team was supporting the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, in structuring a JUON for the NPC to transport large numbers of patients. The new procedures were immediately put into place on operational missions.

Current PBCM OUE testing is focused on airworthiness requirements, biocontainment testing, concept of operations development, medical-crew familiarization, and flight testing on the C-17 with operational crews. Upon conclusion of PBCM testing, the team will immediately pivot to completing the same testing on NPC and the NPC-lite variant.

“The need to expeditiously field the system requires a synergistic approach,” said Hoyt, AFOTEC Detachment 2 test director. “The test team is adjusting execution to ensure valid data collection and operational realism. The test execution period, while it may appear to be condensed, is the same process used in other operational testing with the exception that several events are accomplished in parallel.” According to Hoyt, the approach is technically adequate to address all user requirements and determine the system's effectiveness, suitability and mission capability.

AFOTEC’s test team includes a bioenvironmental engineer, bioenvironmental technician, and emergency management testers who work out of Detachment 2’sCBRN Test Branch. AFOTEC’s test team, along with other agencies, is combining and conducting concurrent test design, test planning and test execution efforts and events to shorten the total time required to complete the test process. While this is normally a process done sequentially by a single test team, several test teams are joining together in a joint effort to accomplish events concurrently.

The multi-agency test team includes the JPEO CBRND that took management of PBCM and NPC at the end of March. Key to program success is a “safe-to-fly” certification on the C-17 and this requires intense efforts from the C-17 System Program Office at Robins AFB, Georgia, and the 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin AFB. Additionally, the capability of the systems to contain an aerosol virus requires sophisticated sampling and collection methods specifically designed for the system and flight environment.

This collaboration of operational testers allows the DOD to expand the scope of effort to increase flexibility and speed to answer the call supporting the fight to defeat COVID-19. “The dedicated commitment of this entire test team is necessary to complete testing on a timeline rarely seen to confront the significant COVID-19 health risks,” said Col. Timothy J. Stevens, AFOTEC Detachment 2 commander.

“The joint test team is pushing very hard to complete a test effort that usually takes months of planning and execution in a few weeks because the threat this virus poses to Americans and military members world-wide is real,” Stevens said. “They need a way to get safely home for treatment while we mitigate the threat to our aircrews and medical personnel.”