By Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade, 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 28, 2015
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- Members of the 375th and 932nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadrons here began familiarization training on a Transport Isolation System (TIS) Jan. 26.
The TIS, which was unveiled Jan. 23, after 60 days of planning, developing and testing, provides the Department of Defense with the capability to air transport multiple patients affected by highly contagious diseases, including Ebola.
The U.S. Transportation Command led the effort, citing the need to be able to move the nation's military members and their patients safely.
"Our approach was, if we are going to put military members in harm's way, the capacity to move a single patient at a time was insufficient to the mission we were asking our team to do," said Gen. Paul J. Selva, the TRANSCOM commander.
Previous to the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, policy dictated that those who contracted infectious diseases would be treated in country. That is not the case anymore, which led TRANSCOM to author a joint urgent operational needs statement that challenged the defense engineering community to come up with an operational solution for the requirement to move both the patient and the caretakers appropriately aboard military aircraft.
Currently, the TIS is configurable to the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules aircraft, with the first four isolation systems to be staged at Joint Base Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, where it is now ready for operational use. Each module is roughly 9 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall and weighs less than 1,500 pounds -- about the size of a minivan.
With $7 million in funding, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) began leading the development of the capability in October 2014, while the Joint Project Manager for Protection led system acquisitions.
A St. Louis-based company called Production Products, Inc., was awarded the contract and the proximity of the company allowed aeromedical evacuation (AE) experts to consult and provide feedback during the development of the equipment.
Capt. Michelle Pierson, a Flight Nurse Evaluator for Air Mobility Command, was one of the many Scott AFB members who has been, and will continue to advise the company on the equipment. She is also one of the members responsible for writing all the new regulations and guidance for AMC.
"Many Scott (AFB) entities went down to the company in charge of building the equipment to let the company know how the equipment needed to interface with the aircraft, patients, and the Center for Disease Control guidelines, with safety being paramount," she said. "Scott AFB also provided equipment such as litters, pallets and configuration limitations."
In December 2014, the initial units were manufactured and the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center conducted tests at Charleston and Eglin AFB, Florida. Two AE teams from Charleston and a team from the 375th AES were selected to receive the initial five days of training on the equipment at Charleston AFB.
"The training was rigorous, but after receiving it, the teams are very confident we could complete the mission it is designed for," said Maj. Elizabeth Norris, a 375th AES flight nurse.
"We went through a whole day of learning the proper protocols with the infectious disease doctors right by our side every step of the way,” she continued. “We went through the pre-flight process, how to enter and exit while carrying a patient litter, and practiced doing the mission in full protective gear as if we were in the air on a C-17. This system itself is not isolated to treating just one type of infectious disease."
While there were many moving parts and multiple entities all working together to make this happen quickly, one aspect that assisted with production was that the company was able to use several "pre-approved" parts, such as lights and generators, that were already tested for air worthiness, said Eric Nikolai, the DTRA liaison officer to TRANSCOM who coordinated the integrated efforts on the project.
In addition, the TIS is based on existing military patient support pallets. Each unit has a disposable liner and an air filtration system which circulates air in. The TIS maintains a negative interior pressure to keep contaminants inside the chamber. An alarm sounds if negative pressure is lost. The system has ports for the medical team to run sensor cables, oxygen lines, and lines for other equipment, and a minor repair kit is included.
Maj. William Thoms, from the AMC Surgeon General office, explained that the TIS is composed of an anteroom module and either one or two isolation modules, based on the number of patients. The staff will enter with protective gear on and remove it in the antechamber prior to exiting the aircraft. The pallets can be configured with passenger seats, litters or both; the standard configuration is for two seats and one litter.
In all, 25 units will be built for the DOD. TRANSCOM will direct employment through AMC, its Air Force component. Charleston AFB will soon receive the first three production units for training and staging in case they are needed. Other eventual staging locations for the TIS will be developed following delivery based on ongoing world events.
"Now we have the capacity to isolate a single person and provide tactical and strategic worldwide patient transport capability in case of a biological event," Selva said. "It is the only capability of its kind other than the small-scale single-evacuation capability that's available on commercial carriers."