CAROLINA, Puerto Rico – Social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is critical, but training and readiness remain priorities for the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.
Most Guard units are expected to train one weekend a month in what is known as a regularly scheduled drill, or RSD. Due to the global health pandemic, the April RSD for PRANG Airmen was rescheduled. To minimize the potential for Airmen to fall behind on mandatory training while respecting social distancing, a team at the 156th Wing at Muñiz Air National Guard Base created a virtual RSD for May for the entire PRANG.
“Part of the Air National Guard mission is to maintain the readiness of its personnel. That is paramount,” said Lt. Col. Denny Lozano, the 156th Mission Support Group deputy commander. “In order to achieve our domestic and federal mission, training is critical, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So we researched guidance and we identified ANG instruction that allows us to legally conduct our military mission.”
After extensive planning and research, the May virtual RSD was created. Units throughout the PRANG designated drill days spanning nearly the entire month of May. By using telecommuting tools and online training capabilities, Airmen accomplished their May RSD from the safety of their homes.
“We take seriously our commitment to always be ready,” said Col. Dawn Junk, the 156th Mission Support Group commander. “We have established innovative approaches to keep us ready to support when our state and nation calls.”
To ensure Airmen were able to engage productively for their entire two-day drill period, a catalog of training was created. The catalog offered the resources to complete required annual computer-based training, unit-specific training, physical fitness and job-specific training. Additional resources were provided for Airmen, such as online FEMA courses in areas like pandemics and access to support agencies to include the safety office, the chaplain’s office, the legal office, Military OneSource, and the inspector general.
“We put together a top-notch team with specialties in communications, administration, legal, compliance and overall planning,” said Junk. “They spent the last three weeks developing an entire two-day drill for hundreds of Airmen. That is not an easy task, lots of moving parts for accountability and training. And, of course, it is successful because Airmen want to be trained and have gravitated to the technology with ease.”
The 156th Communications Flight and planning team decided a virtual drill could be accomplished with Air Force-approved video conferencing and group chats that would work on computers and smartphones.
“We immediately started to test the different platform capabilities, limitations, pros and cons,” said Capt. Carlos Vera, the 156th Communications Flight commander. “We also tested them with potential customers to gather their opinion about ease of use and functionality.”
The planning team researched what it would take to enable every PRANG Airman to meet the virtual RSD requirements. More than 400 security card readers were purchased and distributed to Airmen. The 156th Communications Flight spent nearly three weeks validating equipment, researching telework platforms and facilitating 146 virtual meetings and training directly related to the RSD.
“The virtual RSD was an extreme success to me because supervision was very thorough and organized in the execution. They had plan A, B and C just in case something were to impede training,” said Staff Sgt. Gabriela Aleman, a sustainment services journeyman with the 156th Force Support Squadron. “I enjoyed the vRSD because I felt connected to all my peers through our group chat.”
The Puerto Rico Air National Guard is used to adversity, adaptability and resiliency. This first virtual drill came with the added challenge of having to learn and accept new technology and ways to communicate while meeting all required tasks.
“Despite all, we can stay connected, we can still accomplish the mission,” said Lozano. “We just keep going. What makes the Guard strong is the people. We have a lot of different backgrounds and experiences; that’s what makes us robust.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of the innovation shown by our Airmen,” said Col. Pete Boone, the 156th Wing commander. “With the significant challenges presented by COVID-19, they were able to create a product to benefit the entire PRANG while focusing on compliance and readiness. The robust training allowed our Airmen to complete an entire drill period while remaining at home.”