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Air Force engineers aid fight against Ebola

By Master Sgt. Deacon White
86th CEG superintendent, expeditionary engineering

     Our commander-in-chief put out a call to America to aid the fight against Ebola. As forward-stationed engineers, the 86th Civil Engineer Group was posturing its craftsmen for the possibility of being tasked to support Western Africa in its fight against Ebola. 86th CEG unit deployment managers expeditiously provided their leadership with a listing of personnel whose deployment window would accommodate this task.  As with any deployment, many questions and concerns were posed.  Some key considerations were: which members have experience interacting with aid agencies, have joint-service experience and can bring multi-faceted skills that would benefit Ebola affected areas.

     As the superintendent of the expeditionary engineering section, I manage all of the 86th CEG deployment processes.  Being engineers, the men and women of the CEG take extreme pride in being a dynamic group willing to deploy anywhere, any time.  Engineers would call my section on a daily basis to highlight their eligibility for a deployment supporting the fight against Ebola in Western Africa.  Then, it happened: the call came for engineers to lead the way and aid in the construction of treatment facilities in Liberia.

     The 86th CEG was tasked to support U.S. Army contracting specialists by providing construction management, training and quality assurance of treatment facilities being erected in support of Operation UNITED ASSISTANCE.  This task was extremely challenging given the limited military support functions, billeting and construction space available in the austere remote lands of Liberia.  Constrained by the limitations of the operating environment, the 86th CEG could only deploy two of its engineers. Master Sgts. Mathew Bashaw and Robert Lloyd were the fortunate engineers selected to support the operation.  Bashaw is a water and fuels systems maintenance supervisor and Lloyd is a pavements and equipment supervisor. Both men are assigned to the 786th Civil Engineer Squadron.  Both of these Airmen were selected based on their history within the civil engineer community, experience enduring joint-service deployments and having the confidence of their chief enlisted manager and commander.

     These two Airmen were quickly scheduled for all necessary training which was provided by the U.S. Army.  They became familiar with working joint-service specific requirements and interfacing with U.S. Army Command and Control functions in the area of operations.  Not long after training was completed, the two engineers were eagerly skyward bound to the Western Africa Ebola battlefield.

     Shortly after arriving at the U.S. Army's bed down site, they received their key tasks.

     1. Assist USAID in the design, construction and inspection of Monrovian and Liberian Ebola treatment units and evaluate airfield operating surfaces for future support of aircraft.
     2. Conduct pre-site construction surveys including trip reports containing as much construction data as possible.
     3. Compile construction materiel requirements, identify quality construction support within the area of operations and quality control construction plans to ensure materiel and specifications match.
     4. Review, sign, draw and contract documents for Department of Defense engineers to begin erecting at least eight Ebola treatment units with future plans for another nine..

     One task that kept the engineers busy was transiting from one construction site to another, assessing water sources and flow rates sufficient to support Ebola treatment units.  If a water source wasn't available at a construction site, the engineers would recommend courses of action for obtaining water.  One such course involved the use of large water storage tanks positioned at a construction site and filled on a daily schedule.  To accomplish this task, water was trucked in from the nearest suitable source.

     Like any public water supply, wherever there is water consumption, there's a need for waste water drainage.  This meant the engineers had to survey the landscape to identify water run-off and drainage suitability.  Seasonal rains slowed engineering capabilities; for safety at the site visits and figuring out how teams were going to move a large amount of water in a timely manner.  Safety at the sites was paramount during and after rainfalls.  Teams could get stranded in mud without any assistance to aid in their situation for hours.  A member could get swept away by mudslides or a now raging river.  Once they had the lay of the land, they drew-up recommendations to assure adequate drainage for everything from rainfall to waste water.  This was paramount to ensuring more people didn't become infected with Ebola due to poor water run-off and drainage -- the team couldn't fail in this task.

     Another challenge the engineers tackled was finding adequate and safe power sources.  In the western world, electrical power is taken for granted but in Western Africa it is a rare and almost unattainable resource.  If commercial power was inadequate or unavailable to support construction efforts and the operation of Ebola treatment units, a plan was drafted to have suitable power provided to the area.  As an interim measure, generators were procured and used until suitable power was provided.  These generators required fuel that had to be sourced and trucked in at a rate to sustain electrical power output and consumption.

     As with any civil engineering operation that includes numerous sites, transportation to and from several locations was a necessity.  Travel in Liberia is harsh no matter what time of the year it is.  Should a thunderstorm occur, the road could be easily washed-out or turned into an unusable mud pit.  A two-hour drive on a normal day could easily turn into an eight-hour muddy drive.  This made air travel a highly sought after method for travel to the further outlying areas.  The ability to travel in Liberia was contingent upon ever changing road conditions, unpredictable weather and land or air transportation availability.  Our engineers, however, were dedicated professionals, determined to lead the way for the construction of Ebola treatment units no matter how long or muddy the task proved to be.

     Safety of the members in the country and Western Africa from exposure to Ebola from locals who were afraid to identify that they were ill or didn't know they were ill. Emergency medical kits were given to all personnel and they were checked daily for symptoms.  Teams were briefed daily of exposure updates and preventive measures to reduce chances of becoming infected with not only Ebola but other infectious diseases in the area. The potential of a member becoming infected and returning home to spread the virus was real but extremely low.  However, every precaution had to be taken to ensure everyone's safety and to stop what had the momentum to become a global pandemic.

     As with many of America's expeditions, engineers played a pivotal role in the final outcome.  Engineers surveyed numerous sites, reviewed dozens of contracts and drawings, provided quality control and endured austere operating conditions to ensure the success of Operation UNITED ASSISTANCE.  The mission to provide high-quality treatment units and ultimately overcome the outbreak of the Ebola virus has become a proven success because of our professional and highly skilled USAF civil engineers.  On a larger scale, our engineers have been a direct contributing factor in saving countless lives in the Ebola crisis.  Engineers Lead the Way!