Saturday, April 25, 2020

Corps of Engineers Transforms Miami Beach Convention Center Into Treatment Facility

April 24, 2020 | BY James Yocum

In February, residents of Miami Beach, Florida, weren’t thinking about global pandemics. They were thinking about the 80,000 visitors flooding the Miami Beach Convention Center for the NFL Experience and Super Bowl LIV.

A lot can change in two months. Billboards on I-95 still hype the big game held Feb. 2, but ever since the governor issued his "Safer at Home" order, there haven't been many drivers on the road to see them.

The Miami Beach Convention Center has changed a lot in that time, too. Just two years after receiving a $620 million makeover, the center will not be hosting Super Bowl fans, car shows or boat shows for a while. Instead, it will be part of a federal, state, county and local government response to build enough hospital beds to support local hospitals and avoid a medical system collapse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've been in the Miami area looking at different places we could build alternate care facilities since mid-March," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Polk, the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District's deputy commander for South Florida. "Having teams in the field early really paid off. By the first week in April, we had our assignment and shipped a team down to the Miami Beach Convention Center to begin construction."

The Corps of Engineers jumped into action after the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the mission to begin converting the convention center April 4. District contract officers awarded the work to Robins and Morton Group just two days later, with construction beginning the next day.

"The initial requirements were not even completely ready," said Army Col. Andrew Kelly, the Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District commander. "We often use the analogy of building an airplane while we fly it a lot, but it was really true in this case. We were making multiple changes to the plan every day for the first week of construction. Crews were working 24 hours a day, so we would make a decision to change something and the contractor was executing it immediately."

The overall mission was pretty daunting: Turn 246,000 square feet of open space into a 450-bed facility with the equipment needed to treat COVID-19 patients. This would include the construction of an on-site pharmacy and laboratory, dedicated nursing stations, medical command center and administrative spaces, two cafeterias, ambulance staging area, isolated patient intake and miles of copper tubing, electrical cables and CAT 6 data transfer cables to support medical operations 24/7.

All of this was scheduled for completion by April 27. But the state didn't have until April 27. On the second day of construction, Florida Gov. Ron D. DeSantis visited the site and met with Army Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Corps of Engineers commander and chief of engineers.

"The governor just sat with me in the trailer behind us and said 'You've got until the night of the 20th of April,'" Semonite said during the news conference that followed. "There’s no time to design and build it. We have a suspense, and we have to get it done." 

That put the pressure on the Jacksonville District team and the contractor, Polk said.

"Instead of three weeks, we had two," he said. "We were already looking at 24-hour shifts and a tight deadline. Add in the complication of requirements being refined in real time and the difficulty everyone in the nation is facing when ordering the medical equipment, and what was a hard assignment became one of the most challenging we've ever faced."

So what did the Jacksonville District do when facing a shortened deadline and a Herculean task? It delivered the facility ahead of schedule, with construction being completed April 18 and the keys handed to the Florida Division of Emergency Management on April 19.

A lot of factors were involved in the success, Kelly said. National support from the Corps of Engineers on supply chains, enough funding, a willing partnership with the city and county government, and a dedicated team on the ground working with the contractor. But the factor that really stood out was the way the state worked to provide the requirements needed to complete construction, he added.

"The biggest concern I had was being able to make the decisions that needed to be made at the right time," Kelly said. "Tallahassee gave us exactly what we needed. They were able to say what we should do, what needed to adjust in the plans, and make rapid and effective decisions. It was immeasurable for those of us out here daily on the site to not have to wait for a decision."

The Jacksonville District also benefited from the expertise of the Florida National Guard for advice during the build.

"The partnership the Florida National Guard established with the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of the Miami Beach alternate care facility has been exceptional," said Army Col. Ricardo Roig, the commander of the Florida National Guard's Task Force 50th. "We are grateful for the Corps' hard work getting this facility completed, and are working with our state partners to provide all necessary support to ensure it is ready to operate."

As the owner of the convention center, the city of Miami Beach was also largely responsible in completing the project early, Kelly said. The city's cooperation was especially important, considering that the alternate care facility was designed to provide flexibility to local medical systems in response to COVID-19.

"We are grateful to the Army Corps of Engineers for swiftly constructing the alternate care facility at our Convention Center — a precaution to assure that we are fully prepared for a worst-case scenario and that our community will never face shortages of beds or equipment," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. "Hopefully, it won't ever be occupied."

(James Yocum is assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers.)

Empowering Flexibility, Broad Discretion and Addressing Concerns

April 24, 2020 | BY NAVY LT. KRISTI ESCO

A hallmark of the nation's commitment to its military is the promise of providing for service members and their families while they are sacrificing so much to protect the American people and their way of life. Today, the military continues to act as the bulwark of our security while battling a simultaneous silent threat to their own health and wellness.

Effectively mitigating the spread of COVID-19 requires new customs such as working remotely, restricting movement and social distancing. These are challenges all Americans face, but the added difficulties and arduous nature of military service adds to the complexities for service members. These adjustments have unintentionally created questions about some pay and benefits for military members.

The Defense Department has heard these challenges and the many questions about how the men and women of the military will be compensated during this crisis. Over the last several weeks, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs has issued military personnel guidance and further supplemental guidance addressing special policies and procedures implemented to ensure continuing financial security for our members and their families, and guidance on use of leave. 

The unprecedented measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 require us to change some of our normal business rules and flex our policies where that is warranted. Specifically, this military personnel guidance addresses concerns such as how members can continue receiving Special and Incentive Pays if their duties are severely restricted, Basic Allowance for Housing when a change of duty station is interrupted, how to compensate members for the hardships associated with being ordered into Restriction of Movement, and how members can continue receiving Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) coverage if their pay is interrupted.

It also discusses how reservists and National Guard members can perform training periods, called drills, in the midst of travel restrictions, among many other topics.  

Many highly-skilled members receive special or incentive pays for their incredible and challenging jobs, such as divers and airborne troops. While under orders to restrict movements, the department will continue paying these incentives, even if these troops are unable to meet their monthly minimum dives or jumps, or any of the requirements of some of the other special and incentive pays.

DOD officials recognize that it is not feasible to perform these duties during this time of crisis, and so, these policy exceptions will allow members to receive their expected compensation.

While many reservists and National Guard members are being called up to support the response to COVID-19, many are also being asked to change their regular routines. Social distancing is impractical during typical training and drills. To combat this new reality, commanders are empowered to exercise more flexibility and may use broader discretion in employment practices, such as telework and work from alternate locations. The secretary of defense has given commanders the authorities needed to take the necessary precautions, while also ensuring service members are trained and ready to defend the nation. 

More than ever before, flexibility is paramount for reservists and National Guard members. However, even with more flexibility, there will still be reservists and National Guard members who will not be able to drill, even remotely, due to unforeseen circumstances. In these cases, members may have questions about whether their SGLI insurance coverage will continue even if they are not drilling and getting paid.

It is important to note that members will not lose their life insurance coverage if they were unable to drill or perform training due to COVID-19. Coverage will continue, and those missed premiums will only be deducted when the member returns to a pay status.

Doctors, nurses and medics from the Florida National Guard joined Florida International University at the Miami Beach Convention Center to conduct training in preparation to staff the center in the event it is needed in response to COVID-19.

Another significant issue is how to ensure members do not lose their accrued leave if they are unable to use it between now and the end of the year. Normally, service members can carry over only 60 days of leave from one fiscal year to the next, but this could be a problem for those who are engaged in the fight against COVID-19 or are unable to go on leave due to the travel restrictions. To protect them from losing their well-earned leave, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness signed a special memorandum authorizing what is called special leave accrual. This authority will let service members carry over leave up to 120 days.

Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. For every service member, their first point of contact should be their chain of command to find out more information concerning pay and personnel policies. Departmentwide guidance on the response to COVID-19, including military personnel guidance, can be found on the department's coronavirus Spotlight page. This same information, as well as additional financial counseling resources can also be found on Military OneSource.

To effectively minimize risk and remain unified as challenges arise, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs will continue to work closely with the rest of the Defense Department, other federal agencies, and state and local governments to provide updated information. The department remains committed to responding to this pandemic on the frontlines of that battle while prioritizing protecting troops, DOD civilians and their families.

(Navy Lt. Kristi Esco is assigned to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.)