FORT BLISS, Texas - As the Department of Defense continues to stand ready under the shadow of COVID-19; the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) is keeping the nation’s largest military installations online via a steadfast and secure communications infrastructure supported by more than 160 localized Network Enterprise Centers (NECs) positioned throughout the globe, supporting DOD installations world-wide.
One of those NECs supporting NETCOM’s 24-hour round-the-clock mission of managing and protecting the Army’s Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN-A) is located at Fort Bliss, Texas, which is part of the 106th Signal Brigade based out of Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA).
Keeping one of the largest military installations on the grid and interconnected via a complex network topography spanning approximately 1.12 million acres of land in Texas and New Mexico is not an easy task as Mr. Brian Kessel, the Deputy Director of the Fort Bliss NEC, describes.
“In support of COVID-19 contingency operations, we have expanded networks and services into buildings designated as quarantine and isolation facilities, both on the main cantonment area [Fort Bliss proper] and on multiple base camp areas such as Doña Ana and McGregor ranges [located in New Mexico],” said Kessel.
“We are also working with 5th Armored Brigade to set up multiple tent areas at McGregor base camp to support the restart of the mobilization and CONUS [Continental United States] Replacement Center missions,” said Kessel.
Kessel went on to explain how the NEC is tightening its focus on all things COVID-19 in their effort to provide support to the shifting Army priorities due to the pandemic. In addition, the NEC is also providing critical network access to first responders as the need for extended virtual capability increases.
“The NEC has assisted with expanding network and voice services into clinics and quarantine/isolation facilities to support virtual health services,” said Kessel.
“We also established fiber optic pathways across post to allow the hospital to install their switches for temporary medical facilities.”
Because of COVID-19 and the increased need for capability and streamlining of network operations the NEC has optimized its infrastructure, said Network Infrastructure Division Chief, Michael Cordle.
“The NEC has extended the MEDCOM networks on Fort Bliss to the MacAfee Army Health Clinic at White Sands Missile Range over an Army owned 1 Gigabit link, replacing the leased circuit which was funded by a contract,” said Cordle.
“Elimination of the leased circuit saves the Army money on a monthly basis, and the change to a Gigabit circuit increases available bandwidth over 600 percent”
“We’ve also extended communications services to Fort Bliss Access Control Points, called ACPs, where they are performing physical screening, such as taking temperatures, as individuals enter the installation,” said Cordle.
An increase in mission needs is expected during a crisis. Kessel explained that the primary area of their mission that has increased is in the extension of network services into areas and facilities where it did not previously exist.
“We have overcome the COVID-19 challenges through applying strong leadership in the delivery of quality NEC services,” said Kessel.
“We accomplished that while also adhering to workforce safety practices, such as social distancing, use of PPE [personal protective equipment], and sanitizing of equipment.”
"I'm extremely proud of the NEC team,” said Jeff Brown the NEC Director.
“Each member is a stellar performer. These professionals know the importance of what we do for Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, our Army, and our nation. Their work in the background ensures Army networks are operational and secure."
In addition to words of praise from the director, the NEC’s higher headquarters commander, Maj. Gen. Maria Barrett, the Network Enterprise Technology Command Commanding General, spoke warmly about the NEC team and their performance.
"Pandemic support is really not on a NEC's to do list, but mission accomplishment is. The Fort Bliss NEC team is laser focused on supporting their customer's mission at one of our largest Army installations. They continue to impress me every day as they push through the challenges of the pandemic, demonstrating their creativity and adaptability, with the end state of driving outcomes for the customer.”
“I know them as a team of experts, who embody our Army values when it comes to answering the network needs of their fellow Soldiers and Civilians," said Barrett
Of course, the pandemic poses additional challenges to their efforts. Kessel said one area not supported by the telework environment has been the classified networks services. In addition, Kessel said those services are not performed remotely; they send staff onsite to fulfill those requirements.
“For the most part, all other services are still being provided via teleworkers to varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness,” said Kessel.
However, the NEC has noticed some unexpected and welcome benefits.
“Telework has actually had a positive impact on the NEC staff,” said Kessel.
“Beyond the obvious benefit of being able to stay home and stay safe, the staff has adapted to this new environment by embracing the use of online collaboration tools to the point where inter-office communications are as responsive as ever, maybe even more so.”
“Also, our troubleshooting practices have changed to accommodate visiting customer sites less than ever before,” added Kessel.
“That has reduced significant amounts of driving time across the 1 million acres of Fort Bliss and the 2 million acres of White Sands Missile Range.”
Kessel ended by talking about his team of professionals. “I could not be prouder of the NEC team and their response to the COVID-19 emergency. The staff is cooperating at high levels, communicating at high levels, and comradery is at the highest level I have seen in a long time.
“This emergency has really brought the staff together,” Kessel said.
“Our challenge as leaders will be to serve our team in navigating back to “normal” while maintaining these lessons we’ve learned. And I am confident that we will.”