ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
As communities across the nation grapple with the threat of COVID-19, one group of Air Force Reservists is fully engaged in the fight against the deadly Coronavirus.
Assigned to the 1st Air Force National Security Emergency Preparedness Directorate (NSEP), Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers have deployed across the nation to state emergency operations centers, FEMA regional offices, the National Response Coordination Center, Air Force bases, and the Air Force Crisis Action Team cell at the Pentagon.
Some reservists, such as Col. Matthew Tondini, are serving on the frontlines as FEMA decides how and when to integrate Title 10 Air Force assets (active duty and reserve) into the fight. Tondini has been working 12 to 14-hour days at the New York Office of Emergency Management. The city has the largest number of COVID patients and related deaths in the nation. Col. Tondini maintains visibility on all aspects of military response in the city, including the arrival of the U.S.N.S. Comfort hospital ship, the retrofit of the Javits Convention Center to care for thousands of patients, and the need for mortuary affairs augmentation.
Known as EPLOs, reservists like Col. Tondini come from a variety of Air Force specialties to this special duty assignment. During regular operations, EPLOs focus on building relationships within the disaster response enterprise, and informing key stakeholders about their role in the Defense Support of Civil Authorities mission and preparing for disasters.
When crisis hits, these relationships prove crucial. “The commonality with all of the EPLO missions is proactive relationship building,” said the Deputy Director for NSEP, Joe Sanders. “Day-in and day out, EPLOs are on the ground, building relationships, and training with their interagency partners and sister-service EPLOs before disaster strikes. These existing relationships are paying great dividends right now in the fight against COVID.”
Early on in the crisis, Col. Ralph Anthenien, the senior director to FEMA Region 3, deployed to Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland, Texas, where American evacuees from China’s Hubei province were quarantined in February. Over the course of several weeks, two groups of cruise ship evacuees arrived and remained in quarantine at the base. Col. Anthenien orchestrated multi-agency support activities and directly supported the installation commander by assisting with Air Force issues that came up during the multi-agency response.
Meanwhile, almost 2,000 miles away, Col. John Trovato worked in a similar role at Travis AFB, Calf., when the base was selected as a quarantine area for American evacuees from Wuhan, China, and a Princess Cruise ship during February and March.
At Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Col. Christiano Marchiori served as a liaison between the base and Air Forces Northern, keeping them apprised of developments associated with a group of evacuees from the Grand Princess Cruise ship who were quarantined at the base. None of the EPLOs worked directly with evacuees.
During the month of March, EPLOs also deployed to serve on the Air Force Crisis Action Team cell in the Pentagon. Col. Rob Mantz, Lt. Col. Karen Shelton-Mur and Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kelpis worked around the clock seven days a week, funneling information back and forth between the White House, the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff, and other senior leaders. The AFCAT team also relays information back to the NSEP, which in turn relays critical information to EPLOs in the field.
“We are constantly directing requests in the right direction,” said Lt. Col. Kelpis. “For example, we had a general who called who wanted to connect private medical companies with the right people for medical equipment donations. In this case, I called the NRCC EPLO and connected the general to Lt. Col. Michael Eldridge, who took it from there. Lt. Col. Eldridge then connected them to the correct FEMA logistics branch to assist with this COVID response donation. These connections, responding to requests for information, and coordination calls occur non-stop.”
Before becoming an Air Force Reserve EPLO, Col. Kelpis had 28 years of service in the Air National Guard working in logistics and domestic operations. Her prior work lends itself to the DSCA mission. She said her EPLO job has been one of the most rewarding parts of her military career, and the Reserve role leverages all of her previous military work.
As COVID-19 has no geographic boundaries, EPLOs are also supporting Pacific Air Forces during the crisis. Col. Jade Norstrom, the senior director for Region IX, deployed to Fort Shafer, Hawaii, to facilitate strategic airlift requests of critical medical supplies and a Federal Medical Station with Region IX’s Defense Coordinating Element, Indo-Pacific Command, Northern Command and the embassies. Almost 4,000 miles further west, Maj. Arnold Banks provides NSEP and 1st Air Force timely updates on COVID response operations in the U.S. territory of Guam, including the status of the U.S.S. Roosevelt ship, and the quarantine of thousands of sailors who tested positive or were exposed to the virus.
EPLOs don’t always stay in one spot. For example, after several weeks at the AFCAT cell, Col. Mantz deployed to West Virginia serving in a state EPLO role at the state’s emergency operations center. At the end of March, Col. Anthenien pivoted to a new location to work with 9th Air Force and Task Force Southeast at Shaw AFB, S.C.
At the time of this story, almost half of the Air Force’s EPLOs were activated at the state, regional and federal level, and the remaining EPLOs are postured to deploy as the fight against COVID-19 continues across the nation.