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MCSC supports Air Force-led effort to safely transport COVID-19 patients

  • Published
  • By Matt Gonzales
  • Marine Corps Systems Command, MCSC Office of Public Affairs and Communication
Last year, Marine Corps Systems Command assisted in an Air Force-led effort to acquire and repurpose a shipping container intended to safely transport patients affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, in response to the burgeoning coronavirus disease crisis, United States Transportation Command released an urgent need request for a capability to safely airlift contagious patients to a given location for medical treatment.

The Air Mobility Command and Air Force Materiel Command led the effort to develop a solution. They solicited assistance from the Department of Defense, academia and industry to assemble a team of more than 200 experts to develop and field the needed capability.

The Air Force contacted the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense’s Joint Project Manager for Protection to be part of that team.

The Joint Project Manager for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Protection - or JPM CBRN P - provides the DOD and other customers with the protection required to effectively conduct active combat, consequence management and homeland defense operations in CBRN environments.

The team, managed by MCSC, develops, fields and sustains CBRN protection, such as gas masks and suits, and hazard mitigation capabilities for the nation.

“The Air Force came to the Joint Project Manager for CBRN Protection requesting technical and management support for a Negatively Pressurized CONEX,” said Joseph Novick, a U.S. Navy scientist serving as a product manager for JPM CBRN P. “In a single weekend, we put a team together and then quickly got to work.”

What is an NPC?                                                                                 

A Negatively Pressurized CONEX is a 40-foot steel shipping container repurposed as an isolated, safe space to transport individuals afflicted with COVID-19 and other infectious diseases while protecting the aircrew and preventing contamination of the vehicle, Novick explained.

The negative pressure employed in an NPC is an isolation technique typically used in hospitals to prevent cross-contamination from room to room. This helps avert airborne diseases from escaping the room and infecting other people.

“A machine pulls air into the space, and then it filters the air before moving it outside,” said Novick. “The goal was to reconfigure the NPC so the inside was suitable for patient transport.”

The NPC represents a larger version of a similar Air Force capability called the Transport Isolation System. The TIS is an infectious disease chamber developed to transfer individuals during the 2014 Ebola crisis. However, the system could only hold up to four patients at a time.

Conversely, the NPC is configured to support nearly 30 passengers, including ambulatory and litter patients. The space includes large doors and windows to allow for better visual communication, as well as seats to increase passenger safety, said Novick. Air crews transport the NPC via a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

While the NPC fits on a C-17, the container proved too large to fit inside a C-130 Hercules military aircraft. As a result, the Air Force also led the development of the Negatively Pressurized CONEX Lite, a custom-built 28-foot container with similar characteristics to the NPC. DOD personnel configured the NPC-L to be used aboard the C-130, giving USTRANSCOM more flexibility in transporting patients.

Both spaces can globally transport COVID-19 patients who require in-flight medical care by an Aeromedical Evacuation Team or to quarantine asymptomatic passengers who do not require in-flight medical attention.

MCSC’s contributions

JPM CBRN P comprise program managers, engineers, contracting officers and logisticians from the Marine Corps, Army and Navy.

The team’s experience in designing and testing high-efficiency air filter and protection systems that capture cascading air pressure for protection enabled them to equip the NPCs with filtered air to safeguard patients, air crew and aeromedical teams.

In April 2020, JPM CBRN P collaborated with the Air Force to define system performance requirements. MCSC also led the NPC’s system engineering process, which involved designing and testing fans that continuously pull air from within the unit through high-efficiency filters to prevent exposure in the aircraft.

“Our team had experience with systems similar to the NPC that use negative pressure to contain contagious diseases,” said Will Clark, an MCSC engineer who supported the NPC effort. “JPM CBRN P also supplied effective program management to the effort.”

MCSC’s program managers and financial analysts leveraged an agile and iterative acquisition strategy to quickly deliver the capability. The initial system requirements were written in a few days, said Clark. The contract development process, including open competition bidding, was completed in about a week.

The rapid prototyping process required on-the-fly decision-making to meet critical timelines. MCSC’s efforts led to the first NPC prototype being delivered to the government approximately two weeks after the contract was signed.

“I have never been involved in a project where a DOD contract was developed that quickly,” said Clark.

Lt. Col. Paul Hendrickson, NPC lead and materiel leader for the Air Force CBRN Defense Systems Branch, part of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s PEO Agile Combat support, applauded JPM CBRN P for operating efficiently during a pandemic. He commended MCSC for serving as a critical component in quickly delivering the capability.

“[MCSC representatives] provided substantial support early on with the engineering development of the biocontainment system and by providing the agile financial expertise necessary to move at the speed of relevance,” said Hendrickson. “Their efforts cuts days to weeks off the process.”

An ongoing mission

The NPC system underwent proof-of-concept testing in April 2020 followed by a testing and operational utility evaluation two months later, according to a press release by the Air Force. The NPC and NPC-L were fully certified for use in June 2020.

On July 1, the first NPC successfully completed its first operational mission when it transported 12 patients from U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, for a higher level of care - less than 100 days after USTRANSCOM released the urgent need statement.

From June 2020 to February 2021, the NPC and NPC-L have flown 44 missions carrying nearly 295 U.S. military, civilian, dependent and contractor COVID-19 patients, according to statistics provided by the Air Force.

As of April 2021, USTRANSCOM has delivered 31 NPCs and NPC-Ls, some of which are stationed at military installations around the world for aeromedical evacuations, per Hendrickson. Marine Corps Logistics Command, located in Albany, Georgia, will store the additional nondeployed systems to be available to respond rapidly to future requirements.

The NPC will be available for future use in situations requiring medical isolation. Hendrickson said the NPC team continues to train crews, field systems and ensure the sustainment framework is established to support these capabilities and respond to future pandemics at a moment’s notice.

“The teamwork, professionalism and sacrifice put forward by the team is demonstrative of what can be done when the mission is clear and the timing is critical,” said Hendrickson.

Novick said the JPM CBRN P team graciously and willingly accepted the challenge. He noted how the team exuded a high level of determination and professionalism to support an effort that helped combat a pandemic and save lives.

“JPM CBRN P, alongside personnel from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, supported the Air Force and USTRANSCOM to make this a success,” said Novick. “This effort really shows how the services can come together to deal with a global pandemic and save lives.”