Social Distancing Inside Air Operations Centers During a Pandemic

Air Operations Centers are critical command and control nodes that typically involve a lot of people sitting close together in a confined space. So how does the Air Force maintain that mission while also protecting its personnel during a global pandemic?

Air Force Magazine talked to three of the service’s AOCs—the 609th Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar (whose Detachment 1 is located at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.); the 613th AOC at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and the 618th AOC at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.—to see how they are tackling social distancing, COVID-19 prevention, and operational continuity.

Here’s what they said.

1. Readiness hasn’t diminished.

The pandemic hasn’t degraded the Hawaii-based 613th AOC’s “ability to command our forces in theater,” Maj. Gen. Scott Pleus, Pacific Air Forces’ director of air and cyberspace operations, told Air Force Magazine.

Exercise-related command and control functions continue on a daily basis, and the AOC has also retained all of its foreign liaison officers, who continue to work, he said.

Col. Frederick “Trey” Coleman III, commander of the 609th AOC, said the situation there is similar.

He said the pandemic’s operational impact thus far has “been little to none,” even if preventative and reactive measures have changed what a typical day looks like for 609th AOC personnel.

“The men and women of the 609th Air Operations Center are continuing to coordinate and deliver coalition airpower throughout the U.S. Central Command theater of operations everyday,” Coleman said. “And we’re getting better. We are learning how to execute this mission with fewer people, fewer meetings, and more distribution.”

And while real-time lessons learned may be helping Qatar- and South Carolina-based Airmen respond to the coronavirus crisis, the Illinois-based 618th AOC has dug diamonds out of seemingly unrelated training its personnel went through before the outbreak.

A December exercise meant to let the center’s personnel practice sustaining missions in the event of a cyberattack helped gear-up the center to deal with the current pandemic, 618th AOC spokesperson Capt. Alexis Burdon explained.

“Back in December, we exercised ‘A day without the AOC’ in which we simulated a comm out situation to see how missions could continue even if the AOC fell victim to a cyber-attack that rendered it unable to communicate,” Burdon said. “While [we] intended [it] as a training mechanism for a very different scenario, the lessons learned and newly implemented tactics following that exercise have prepared the AOC members to operate in downgraded environments.”

2. Remote communications and rearranging workplaces help.

The 613th AOC has created blue and silver teams, enabling personnel to work in shifts. Work centers also are physically spaced out, Pleus said.

“Traditionally an AOC is a large group of people all sitting next to each other,” he explained, noting that the center has “pulled the people away from sitting next to each other and in some cases put them in different areas of the building itself.”

According to Pleus, this lets team members preserve connectivity while still practicing “physical and social distancing.”

Coleman said that since the 609th AOC’s manning is too small to split into teams, it’s instead “spread out” its “battle rhythm” to reduce the number of people in the building at the same time and make the six-foot distance doable. The center has also nixed unnecessary meetings, he noted.

And the 618th AOC is staggering shifts to limit how many people are in the brick-and-mortar facility at any given time, Burdon said.

All three AOCs are using remote communications options such as teleworking and video teleconferencing to sustain communications while keeping their teams safe.

3. Hygiene is a must.

Coleman said the 609th AOC has been proactive about hygiene since the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak, getting a jump on sanitizing work centers, posting signs to encourage hand washing, and telling personnel to stay home if they fell ill.

“As the crisis evolved, we lost our cleaning contract, so we took even further measures to sanitize our facility—it’s cleaner now than ever!” he said.

In a novel approach to virus prevention, the 618th AOC added foot handles to multiple doors so personnel aren’t forced to touch potentially contaminated surfaces.

4. They’re prepared for the worst.

According to Burdon, 618th AOC personnel with fever, cough, or shortness of breath have been instructed to isolate themselves immediately and let their supervisors know about their condition.

“We understand that even with the abundance of safeguards we have implemented, there is still a concern that one of our members could become ill,” Burdon explained. “If that occurs and we needed to move to an alternate area to allow for decontamination while continuing our mission, we are well prepared and have exercised the capability to operate out of an alternate location.”

And while no 609th AOC personnel have tested positive for COVID-19, Coleman said the center is “prepared to respond … in a way that maintains mission continuity.” He noted that the AOC has an emergency response plan assembled and has already used it, albeit in suspected cases that turned out to be negative.

If an individual at the 609th AOC falls ill, the center instantly refers them to medical, tries to track down who that person may have come in close contact with, so they too can go home until medical says otherwise, and sanitizes the person’s work area as well as anywhere else they’ve been, Coleman said.

“Beyond that, we rely on the exceptional medical care provided by our awesome host wings, the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid and the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base,” he said.

5. Morale matters.

In a statement provided to Air Force Magazine, 618th AOC Commander Brig. Gen. Jimmy Canlas emphasized the importance of looking out for Airmen during the pandemic beyond mere virus prevention, saying his aim is to “maintain morale through this unprecedented event.”

“Airmen are still facing all of the normal life stressors and successes and I have asked my team to not lose sight of that,” he told Air Force Magazine. “We should still recognize accomplishments and check in with our teleworking members.”

Burdon said the AOC’s creative approaches to lifting up personnel included using social media to commemorate the April 1 promotion of six of its team members, since social distancing rendered a typical ceremony impossible.

“Since we couldn’t do an in-person ceremony, the 618th AOC commander and command chief posted a social media video that highlighted each promotee and celebrated their accomplishment,” she said.