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Special tactics wing, AFRL develop smartphone app to mitigate COVID-19 risk

An Airman assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, holds up a smartphone with a dark blue unit shield reading 24th special operations wing in the background.

An Airman assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, holds a smartphone with the COVID-19 health monitoring program June 2, 2020. Medical and Preservation of the Force and Family team members of the 24th Special Operations Wing, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla., teamed up with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base to develop a COVID-19 feature on the Smartabase app, which monitors special tactics operators' pre- and post-deployment health in real time. (U.S. Air Force photo courtesy photo)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) --

The Air Force special tactics community is known for looking at complex problems and finding new ways to accomplish the mission; when COVID-19 became a pandemic, that was no exception.

Medical and Preservation of the force and family team members of the 24th Special Operations Wing, headquartered at Hurlburt Field teamed up with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a way to monitor special tactics operators’ health status during the pandemic straight from their smartphones.

The team quickly responded by taking an existing human performance software known as Smartabase, which identifies health risks to the force, and adding a “COVID-19 Check-In” feature to monitor pre-and post-deployment health.

“We recognized the need for real-time monitoring of the force and readiness impact from COVID-19,” said Col. John Dorsch, 24th SOW surgeon general. “COVID-19 screening was a natural extension of our efforts since it is another risk to force like others for which we are monitoring, such as (traumatic brain injury), musculoskeletal injuries and PTSD.”

The app feature is designed as a daily survey where users input daily temperature, possible symptoms, risk factors, exposure as well as a mental health state. All the data from the ST operators are collected and alerts medical and command teams if there is anything out of the ordinary that needs to be addressed.

“This ensures commanders have important information related to their operators and allows them to make the best decisions about who goes where and does what,” said Craig Engelson, 24th SOW POTFF director. “In the past, they have had to coordinate with multiple departments and multiple systems to get the same information.”

The idea stemmed from the wing’s long-standing efforts using technology and innovation to maintain operator readiness as well as ensure special tactics teams’ ability to perform optimally on the battlefield for years to come.

“[Special operations forces] can’t be mass-produced,” Dorsch said “Special tactics is a small, but incredibly important and highly specialized combat capability. This system helps protect this capability for combat operations, and our partnership with AFRL has been invaluable. We must continue to leverage technology to help us solve the nation’s hard problems.”

Dr. Adam Strang, a human performance research scientist and AFRL’s director of the Signature Tracking for Optimized Nutrition and Training (STRONG) team, has been leading the back-end development of the database as well as finding new opportunities for improvement.

“As a scientist, I like to lean forward and stay on the cutting edge,” Strang said. “Often that requires taking big swings and being comfortable with risk. Special tactics functions similarly, which makes a good pairing. Together we push the edge of technological capability in ways that AFRL could not accomplish alone.”

The technology proved successful in monitoring returning deployers, safeguarding families from health risks, as well as helping outgoing deployers meet specific country clearance requirements. The 24th SOW team also helped integrate the technology at the 1st Special Operations Medical Group at Hurlburt Field and 27th Special Operations Medical Group at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, to monitor pre-deployment health for almost 250 air commandos.

“In truth, I believe that we are only scratching the surface of its capabilities,” Engelson said. “As our providers and commanders integrate with the system even more, there is no telling how much more useful this system could become.”

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