ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Maryland -- One year ago on March 10, 2020, the Aberdeen Proving Ground Emergency Operations Center was activated continuously for the first time in years to facilitate communications about COVID-19 in support of the Soldier, family, civilian and retiree population.
To commemorate the day, three employees provided professional perspectives on operational challenges and successes since activation and the way ahead.
COVID-19 presents challenges not typical of emergencies dealt with before, leading to a difficulties from the beginning, said Essie Bennett, installation EOC manager.
“There were a lot of challenges to face … we needed more personnel, supplies and better communication,” said Bennett
The challenges were mitigated within weeks as personnel from other units were assigned to the operations center, and current EOC employees stepped forward to help in multiple areas, including tracking and processing installation case reports, she said.
“It was a real commitment from everyone assigned to the (operations) center; we tracked hundreds of positive cases a week, sometimes a day” she said.
Operation center efforts were vital, ensuring heightened personnel and family member safety while still accomplishing everyday procedures, said Bennett.
Over the following months, with a large portion of the workforce teleworking, the challenges continued to decrease and communication increased, which led to more consistent operations towards the end of the year, said Bennett.
“After six months, operations became more stable; our communications were working great and we continued to track COVID-19 cases with few issues,” she said.
Operations in the EOC haven’t changed much since November 2020 with the exception of more employees returning to the workplace, said Bennett.
There is always uncertainty moving forward, but emergency operations is continuously improving and will perform all functions necessary to help during the pandemic.
“As an ops center we never close. We just prioritize, maneuver and keep moving forward,” said Bennett.
Washington said she credits the success of the past year to the garrison leadership, and the constant communication and relationship with the other installation units.
From an installation safety office perspective, preventative measures went far beyond just medical to ensure the installation was environmentally and structurally set up for operational success during the past year, said Robert Albrecht, a garrison safety and occupational specialist.
Once the operations center went active, the safety office integrated full-time staffing at the EOC, ensuring multiple risk measures were incorporated properly.
“(The safety office) implemented risk reduction measures for cleaning, transfer of staff and guidance on emerging safety and health related activities,” said Albrecht.
The first few months were the most engaging, as the safety office was able to develop a unique relationship with Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic staff and specialists, and other units on the installation who usually support separate missions, said Albrecht.
“The pandemic allowed us to foster a more communal approach to share ideas, data and provide support throughout many command structures,” said Albrecht.
Work on conventional safety issues continued regularly over the first six months showing the preparedness of the safety office for such an incident, he said.
As the year progressed, new challenges began to surface like adapting conventional safety measures to pandemic standards without specific recognized industry practices, and changing social measures, which Albrecht described as “a seesaw effect,” which were slowly pulled back to normalcy, he said.
Current safety measures are working effectively and a continual adaptation to certain practices remains in effect for the safety office.
“(The safety office) continually modifies our approach to cover both conventional safety and the ongoing potential exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Albrecht.
Looking towards the future, Albrecht said the safety office has a renewed confidence in their ability to adapt to any task successfully even when the pandemic ends.
From a command perspective, the installation and U.S. Army were entering new territory.
“There were a lot of unknowns; this was a new virus,” said Col. Timothy Druell, garrison commander, speaking about the pandemic.
The biggest question for leaders was what the pandemic meant to current operations and how it would affect all personnel working and families residing on the installation, said Druell.
“I felt there was a need to activate the operations center to gain better situational awareness and get help from (experts) in their fields,” said Druell.
New processes were immediately put in place, from putting employees in a telework status – limiting exposure – to instituting daily and weekly communication processes, said Druell.
The new processes helped fill communication gaps and get accurate responses to many unknown variables at the time.
“There was a lot of ‘what we didn’t know,’ but having our medical community on board and direction from our higher headquarters was a tremendous help as we moved forward,” said Druell.
One of the biggest challenges was handling the volume of help and information coming through the operations center during the first few months of the pandemic, which helped create the processes that remain in place today, said Druell.
“We received so much help, we had to start turning folks away so we could keep our preventative safety measures in place,” he said.
With an increase in help came better communication tactics and procedures, which led the garrison to have their first virtual town hall within a week, providing all employees and family members with ongoing pandemic guidance, said Druell.
“Over-communicating during a crisis is required, communicating a message once isn’t enough,” said Druell, speaking about communicating safety and mitigation measures.
During the next nine months garrison operations improved, communication was better than a year before, and installation businesses began to reopen despite a large percentage of the workforce not physically on the installation, said Druell.
Throughout the year the mission became twofold: focus on the Army’s mission, and focus on the pandemic, which was handled successfully through teamwork, he said.
“We had to maintain focus, stay customer oriented and meet the Army’s mission, which we are doing,” said Druell.
The operations center will remain active to maintain focus on getting through the current situation, keep moving forward with normal operations and getting employees back to an on-site work status across APG and Adelphi, said Druell.
“We need our folks (in-person) back to help improve current operations and support the businesses on post, specifically our food service industry and FMWR,” said Druell.
Employee safety will remain the number one priority despite a need for in-person availability, said Druell, who is optimistic and believes things are getting better.
“The statistics show our COVID-19 numbers are low, going down every day,” added Druell. “(The installation) is one of the safest places to be in Maryland.”
Druell said any success during the past year can be attributed to installation employees, family members, tenant organizations and the surrounding communities.