VDF assisting in statewide COVID-19 response effort

Members of the Virginia Defense Force augment the Virginia Department of Emergency Management Situational Awareness Unit at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center in Richmond, Virginia. (Contributed photo)

RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia Defense Force continues to augment the COVID-19 response efforts being carried out by the Virginia National Guard and Virginia Emergency Support Team. On a daily average 12 to 13 VDF personnel are on duty with about 35 total members mostly rotating in one or two-week shifts.

“Overall our main mission is to provide staff augmentation to the Emergency Support Function 16’s current operations to the VEST plans section at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the VNG’s J1 joint personnel office and public information resources,” said Lt. Col. (Va.) Philip Smith who served as the task force leader for VDF forces during the early weeks of the mission. Smith and other VDF personnel assisted with filling requests that help the VNG fill in the gaps with VDF personnel with a specialized skill set on certain missions.

An example of utilizing specialized skills is Capt. (Va.) Roger Wilson of the VDF’s Regional Liaison Detachment. His expertise in the GIS software which is used to assist with plotting and populating data on a map to indicate where the test sites and the facilities are and populate where they’re getting support from different organizations. These efforts assist the Virginia Department of Health with increasing their capability with mapping of COVID-19 infections across the state.

Another example is when the VEST logistics section needed assistance after the VNG’s CERFP unit had to pull their resources off that mission for N95 fit testing, PPE training and testing missions. The VDF backfilled those missions in the VEST plans section expanding from just two or three originally to seven people.

“They serve as situational unit leaders and work with different branches of the VEST plans section,” Smith explained.  “We have somebody assigned to work with healthcare coordination, one person assigned to work with provider outreach, one person assigned to work with testing capacity and three people assigned to work with alternate care facilities. They use that information to populate the incident support plan which covers all the support that VDEM is providing and that information is utilized by the governor’s cabinet in some of their analysis.”

Much of the work done by activated VDF personnel was completed remotely using readily available modern technology and remote access connectivity allowing most of the essential functions normally done at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center or at an armory to be performed remotely. This has allowed for a high level of productivity while reducing travel time and limiting potential exposure to COVID-19 amongst the very personnel tasked with coordinating emergency response to it.

“The VNG Joint Staff has communicated in my meetings with them on how good of job everyone in the VDF is doing on this mission,” Smith said. “They realize the strain because it’s a protracted mission and people have to work with their employers and we have families just like the guard members do and everybody has been working hard and doing their part.”

On site presence however is required in the Situation Awareness Unit within the Virginia Emergency Operations Center and Maj. (Va.) Ken Hennessy is leading a carefully selected team of four highly professional VDF personnel performing this highly sensitive and critical responsibility in the SAU for VDEM.

“Our team has been incredibly flexible augmenting the existing SAU staff, which is a mix of part time and full time civilians,” said Hennessy. “Each shift has a SAU shift lead who has many years of experience providing emergency life-saving first responder support across the entire state and we’re blending into a very dynamic on the job training environment and providing 24/7 coverage throughout the first week and here on out we’ll have two two-man teams covering both day and night shifts on alternate weeks.”

Responsibilities for VDF personnel within the SAU include coordinating state emergency response resources at all levels from local, regional and State emergency response resources as necessary depending on how emergency situations develop and escalate in scale and scope.  The SAU is the central point of contact across the Common Wealth of Virginia for all 911 locality dispatch centers and has visibility on all emergency situations in the State.  Commonly monitored situations include everything from common traffic accident fatalities to extreme weather events, full scale disasters and all civil disturbances.  

The SAU assists with coordinating emergency responses for  Virginia State Police medical evacuation flights, HAZMAT spill responses, controlled dam releases involving flooding and residential evacuations along affected water ways, wide spread utility outages as well as search and rescue missions, he said. A recent search and rescue mission that VDF personnel monitored and assisted in coordinating included one in Southwestern Virginia when 12 people, including a family and two children, were stranded as a result of rising river waters. State resources were appropriately mustered and the stranded citizens were rescued as a result of these coordinated efforts. 

The VDF has initially committed to stay on with VDEM in this role for three months to assist in case COVID-19 escalates in the next couple months. This ensures a proper level of manpower and resources isn’t sacrificed and this function is appropriately maintained at the state level to ensure of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia are taken care of.

“The VDF has stepped up to the plate to add an additional layer of professionally trained and readily available manpower to handle these critical lifesaving and essential emergency response functions now and in the future when similar situations arise,” added Hennessy.

The VDF is authorized by Title 44 of the Code of Virginia as the all-volunteer reserve of the Virginia National Guard, and they are a force multiplier and integrated into all VNG domestic response operations. Members of the VDF volunteer their time for training and are only paid when called to state active duty by an authorization from the Governor of Virginia. The VDF reports to the Adjutant General of Virginia as part of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs along with the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Air National Guard.