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NEWS | April 10, 2020

Air Force establishes training hub at JB Charleston for COVID-19 aeromedical evacuation

By Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Air Mobility Command has designated Joint Base Charleston as the sole Transport Isolation System (TIS) training hub for aeromedical evacuation Airmen in response to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.

Maj. Donna Eaton, assigned to Headquarters AMC’s Standards and Evaluations division, is one of the initial cadre that now consists of 10 instructors who have trained approximately 100 AE personnel on how to safely utilize the TIS when transporting potentially infectious patients.  

“Charleston is our hub where we house the TIS and have the bio-environmental engineers’ expertise out of the 628th Medical Group,” she said before noting how they build and maintain the TIS. “Also, the 437th Airlift Wing supports us in the use of their airframes and other ground support necessary to perform training. [The base resources] are vital to accomplishing our mission.”

The TIS is an aircraft-based Air Force system designed to transport infectious patients in support of U.S. Transportation Command and the Department of Defense. According to Eaton, the system was implemented after the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, but the Air Force has been working since 2017 to expand its mission to include other High Consequence Infectious Diseases (HCID). Eaton highlighted the level of interagency collaboration involved in setting up the TIS training program at JB Charleston, noting the diverse group of subject matter experts required to succeed.

“This is a collective effort involving SMEs from aeromedical evacuation, infectious disease personnel, the TIS support team and the Critical Care Transport Team,” she said. “This group has been working collectively since 2018. The training success depends on this collaboration – bringing all the moving parts together.”

Staff Sgt. Raneil Buenviaje, an aeromedical evacuation medical technician assigned to the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Detachment 1, at Travis Air Force Base, California, has been an instructor for less than a month and has already had to adapt to the challenges presented by the unique COVID-19 situation. Buenviaje volunteered to be part of the TIS mission at JB Charleston after attending an HCID training event in March.

“It was such an interesting topic that I accidently got passionate about,” he said. “I found it very interesting that we have those capabilities so I asked the team what I would have to do to become an instructor for HCID TIS training.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Buenviaje was assigned to one of the TIS ground teams at JB Charleston. He ran into two of his HCID TIS training instructors – Eaton being one of them – and was offered a position as a COVID-19 TIS instructor, an offer he gladly accepted. 

“I feel like every generation has their moment of battle or trial and this is our time,” he said. “This is where we shine; I feel like this is going to be pretty much the biggest thing I’m going to do in my career. I’m really glad to be a part of it and that they let me be an instructor for this and gave me an opportunity, it’s amazing!”

Buenviaje’s other instructor at the HCID TIS training was Tech. Sgt. Samantha Pinzon, an aeromedical evacuation medical technician assigned to the 43rd AES at Pope Airfield, North Carolina, who was hand-selected and approved as a COVID-19 TIS instructor by AMC.

Pinzon said she and her fellow trainers utilize a variety of resources, including infectious disease doctors, and their experiences to deliver the most effective training possible. She also noted that staying healthy and hydrated is a must for trainees since they can be required to wear personal protective equipment for as long as 90 minutes at a time. 

“Once you put that PPE on, it’s exhausting sometimes, being in there for long periods of time,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that if you train every day for the worst case scenario – the highest standard where everything is going wrong – [then] when you get on the aircraft and actually have a patient, it’s a less stressful environment. If they’re stressed out here, when they get a patient, they’ll say ‘ok this is doable.’”

Pinzon cited the team’s most recent training class, which took place April 4-6, as an example of how teams gel when tested in a realistic training environment. During the training, a team of aeromedical evacuation professionals – including flight nurses and technicians, critical care air transport teams, infection disease specialists and TIS support team members – learned to safely don and doff PPE specific to COVID-19, prepare patients for evacuation and load patients to and from the TIS.  

“I think the training went really well,” said Pinzon. “Once we had our two days of instruction and got to go out to the aircraft, they really came together as an entire TIS team. Any potential roadblocks they came across, they came together as a crew – which is what we expect them to do – and maneuvered through that as a team.”

Buenviaje echoed Pinzon’s sentiment on the need for realistic training based on worst-case scenarios, noting that a major part of the curriculum revolves around “throwing curveballs” at the trainees that include in-flight emergencies, fires or crew members becoming incapacitated.

“We try to stress critical thinking skills for the entire crew because when they actually have a mission, they’re going to have to count on each other for ideas on what’s safe and best practices,” said  Buenviaje. “We leave it to each crew to decide their plan for how to onload and offload. We have a standard [and] as long as they’re meeting the standards and they’re safe, we try to have them lock in their process. That way, in a real-world mission, everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.”

Eaton credited everyone at JB Charleston and all of the other partners who helped establish the training hub for their support in accomplishing the TIS training mission.

“Our goal is not only to protect the patient and the people, but also to protect our aircraft,” she said. “The collaboration has been tremendous!”