While hundreds of their fellow New York Air National Guardsmen deployed to the New York City metro area to support COVID-19 operations, Airmen at the 224th Air Defense Group in Rome remained in place and did what they always do: defend the eastern U.S. airspace, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, without interruption.
The 224th provides the personnel for the Eastern Air Defense Sector’s federal air defense mission. A headquarters element of the Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command/1st Air Force , EADS is responsible for defending the United States east of the Mississippi River against air attack.
The Airmen monitor the skies over the eastern United States using sophisticated radar and tracking technology.
Acting in accordance with the Adjutant General’s guidance that critical federal missions continue without pause, the 224th ADG took active steps in early March to protect its force.
Strict social distancing protocols, along with stringent equipment and facility cleaning measures, were put into place. As the pandemic’s threat became clearer, these initial steps were quickly followed by a “dispersion and isolation” strategy.
“We were faced with some difficult, but obvious, decisions,” said Col. Paul M. Bishop, the 224th Air Defense Group Commander. “And the most obvious decision was ensuring that our operational force, those Airmen who conduct and directly support our homeland air defense mission, remained healthy and available for duty.”
To make that happen, all non-essential civilian and military personnel were sent home on March 13 as part of a unit-wide telework program.
This step immediately and significantly decreased the number of people in the secure facility, greatly reducing the odds of transmission. The effort was paired with strict medical reporting, enabling leadership to accurately track the day-to-day health status of operations personnel in real-time.
A mandatory face-mask policy within the installation was also instituted to reinforce social distancing. Without a ready supply, unit members bought cloth and made their own face masks.
In addition, all visitors were banned from the facility. Mission-essential deliveries were the only exception.
“We can’t create trained air battle managers, radar technicians, and weapons and aircraft controllers overnight. And there’s no place we can get them from,” Bishop said. “Making sure our core operational force remained healthy was really the only way we had to achieve mission assurance.”
Unit training assemblies for traditional, Drill Status Guardsmen also presented a challenge. In consultation with his two squadron commanders and the unit’s senior enlisted personnel, Bishop cancelled the April UTA.
Unlike most Air National Guard units, the vast majority of the ADG’s Airmen are in Active Guard and Reserve status and work full-time at the Rome facility. The approximately 50 traditional Guardsmen would have come into the facility from across New York. This influx of personnel represented a serious COVID-19 transmission threat and was the reason for the cancellation.
To avoid transmission issues, the upcoming May drill will be virtual. Computer application, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, will be used to communicate with Airmen and keep them up to date.