TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – After a year of strict travel restrictions, teams with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Operation Directorate are back on the road more often in support of installations around the globe.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the directorate had an aggressive travel schedule for specialty teams delivering routine maintenance and inspection or emergency repair support to installations. On average, Civil Engineer Maintenance Inspection Repair Teams receives 210 service calls a year, while Airfield Pavement Evaluation registers 15-20.
While restrictions put a damper on 2020 travel, both the APE and CEMIRT adjusted their approach to help keep installations running.
In 2020, APE teams conducted eight evaluations — less than half of the average, said Capt. Arpan Patel.
“We did our best to adapt to telework and other COVID restrictions, but it was a challenge,” said Patel. “We spent a lot of time reorganizing our soils laboratory, maintaining equipment and trying to find creative ways to support base civil engineer squadrons from afar.”
For example, the team established a virtual training partnership with the Air Force Institute of Technology to keep up with Contingency Airfield Pavement Evaluation certification demands. While virtual CAPE training was a viable solution to alleviate a shortage in evaluators, Patel said some aspects of their job demand in-person support.
“APE is mission critical and we need to be ready for an airfield evaluation or when engineering expertise is needed,” Patel said. “After Hurricane Michael in 2018, our team supported disaster responses at Tyndall, flooding at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, earthquakes at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and even deployed in 2019 to support Air Forces Central Command’s beddown priorities.”
After a nearly four-month-long hiatus from temporary duty travel, the APE team packed their bags and headed to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, in August for a comprehensive evaluation. Upon arrival, the team quarantined for 14 days before starting work.
“It’s a balancing act, fulfilling mission support needs and protecting the health and safety of our team, customers and the people they come in contact with,” said Col. John Tryon, AFCEC Detachment 1 commander. “But our Airmen are used to working in challenging environments and adapting quickly.”
Like APE, the CEMIRT team performed significantly less service calls than usual in 2020.
“We found some creative ways to keep our mission going,” said Patrick Ross, Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning manager. “We started doing a lot more design reviews. It’s something we could do from home while social distancing — identifying design flaws and deficiencies before work begins saves us time and the Air Force money.”
Since COVID-19, CEMIRT has completed 93 service calls related to HVAC, electrical, power production and aircraft arresting systems. Some of the calls included emergencies, such as electrical issues at Cannon AFB, New Mexico; Moody AFB, Georgia; and Patrick AFB, Florida. The team also sent crews to assist with the barrier arresting systems at March Air Reserve Base, California, and Luke AFB, Arizona.
APE, which already has 15 trips planned for 2021, is the only team that can provide the level of analysis needed following extensive runway use.
CEMIRT’s travel is based on defense priorities, current facility conditions and the area’s COVID status.
So far in 2021, CEMIRT has completed 64 service calls delivering hands-on expertise not typically available at bases.
To reduce exposures to COVID-19, CEMIRT and APE teams follow safety protocols and work closely with installations before arriving.
“We simply ask the bases what the status is and what their procedures are,” said David Conkling, HVAC equipment specialist. “When we go into an environment we don’t know, we wear masks. We constantly wash our hands, use sanitizer and whatever we need to protect ourselves and everybody else.”
“We’re strictly following DOD guidance on COVID-19 protocols for states that are red and green,” Ross said. “That’s what we use to decide whether it would be a good idea to attempt to travel to those states and base our workload on that. If things change, we adjust our TDY schedule accordingly.”