The social distancing requirements necessary to protect the force COVID-19 pandemic have produced many challenges to different aspects of life. At First Army, even the most basic method of coordination, the daily meeting, has not gone unaffected.
Thankfully for the First Army mission, technology has evolved to compensate for these requirements, with the First Army video teleconferencing team assuming an increased role to address issues in the training, partnership, and mobilization of partner units.
Being a geographically dispersed Command with the headquarters located at Rock Island, Illinois, First Army was already well prepared for conducting meetings via video teleconferences.
“With the distributed footprint of First Army, two Divisions and 10 Brigades spread throughout the continental United States, VTCs are essential for our leaders to maintain contact, conduct briefings, and make decisions,” said Col. Keith Jarolimek, First Army chief of staff.
First Army leaders balanced these VTC’s with in-person coordination visits. In Mid-March, however, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper initiated a blanket travel restriction, or “Stop-Move” order, hindering face-to-face contact with First Army Brigades and partner units.
“With the Department of Defense Stop-Move order, First Army Senior Leaders could no longer travel to see our subordinate units,” Jarolimek said. “Due to this, VTCs became even more important for the Commanding General and Command Sergeant Major in promulgating their orders, instructions, and intent.”
This meant that a crucial role became even more vital for workers such as Shelia Castens, a First Army video teleconference specialist, who saw teleconference requests increase by almost 30 percent.
She reported that her biggest challenge with the increased workload was straining existing VTC and audio bridge capacity. One simple way to overcome this challenge, Castens said, was to ask the requestors to move their meeting times.
“We also have asked the customer, if possible, to change their conference to a time that is not so busy, for example to if possible, refrain from using Wednesday and Thursday, which are our busiest days. Those are usually maxed,” Castens said.
While there was an initial surge in VTCs in response to the pandemic, Castens said reliance on video teleconferences began to lessen with the usage of Defense Collaboration Services and online meeting technology. Using these forums served to reduce the demand for VTC times.
“It was a couple of heavy months,” Staff Sgt. Michael Shepard, a First Army information technology specialist. “Now that everybody is going to other platforms the VTCs are getting back to normal levels.”
Shepard added that increased demands are a normal part of his job since the amount of VTCs per month fluctuates, so it was business as usual and he and Castens were able to handle the surge.
“We have heavy months and lower months and it just seemed like a heavier month. It wasn’t too crazy,” Shepard said.
Their performance has not gone unnoticed.