Rapid development of the U. S. military's transport isolation system

the "ebola carrier" (a project management case study)

Owen C. Gadeken, Dr.Sc., MBA, PMP

Senior Faculty, Defense Acquisition University (DAU)

Over the years the Department of Defense has established a very intricate and detailed process to acquire new products and services for the military services and defense agencies. This life cycle development process is anchored on a set of core project management subprocesses to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent. But these subprocesses are full of checks and balances, milestone reviews, and considerable documentation that often lengthen the development time for delivery of new systems. This was especially true during recent overseas deployments when urgent requirements from the field were put into this “business as usual” cycle.

As a response to this extended development and delivery problem, rapid development pathways were established for use for time-critical requirements. The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa required a rapid development pathway. As U.S. troops were being deployed in support of the United Nations (UN) response effort, stateside scientists and engineers from the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) scrambled to rapidly develop a safe and effective air transportable multi-patient carrier in the event that our troops contracted the disease and needed to be quickly returned to the United States in larger numbers.

This paper relates the rapid development story of the “Ebola Carrier” from the project manager's point of view. After discussion of the case with the session attendees at the North American Congress, the speaker will share the events that actually occurred to deliver this system.

The Dilemma

As Gene Stark pulled into the parking lot at the U.S. Defense Department's Joint Project Management Office for Protection (JPM Protection) in Stafford, Virginia, he reached toward the radio to turn down the volume as yet another story came on the news about the exploding Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Gene did not need an extra reminder of the daunting task he and his team faced in the weeks ahead.

It was Saturday, October 4, 2014, and Gene, a Marine Corps project manager at the JPM, was returning from a test strategy meeting on the topic that had come to consume Gene's life over the past weeks, the Transport Isolation System (TIS). The TIS was the result of an urgent requirement from the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) for a system that could provide aero-medical evacuation for symptomatic quarantined patients with known or suspected exposure to contagious, infectious diseases while protecting aircrew, airframe, and other support personnel. The Ebola crisis was obviously driving the requirement that had come to Gene and his team in the form of an urgent operational need statement.

Several years earlier, the JPM Protection had developed a product called the Aeromedical Biological Containment System (ABCS) for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ABCS could carry only one patient and was designed for use with a civilian business jet, not the military transport aircraft that would be needed to evacuate multiple U.S. military personnel exposed to or infected with Ebola in West Africa.

The urgent need statement, dated September 29, 2014, called for Gene and his team to deliver 25 TIS units to U.S. TRANSCOM by December 31, 2014. Already a challenging task, it was now complicated by the results of the test strategy meeting Gene had just attended. The plan testers had developed for evaluating the prototype system extended through the end of December! Gene thought to himself, if the testing wasn't to be completed until then, how could his team contract for, build, and field 25 TIS units at the same time, without risking delivering a flawed product (Stark, 2014)?

Gene Stark

Gene Stark had 15 years’ experience in the chemical and biological defense arena. After completing his PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Utah in 1997, he was awarded a German fellowship with the Technical University of Munich, where he developed novel synthetic routes to key pharmaceutical intermediates. Following his postdoctoral fellowship, he worked for a small biotech company in Salt Lake City, preparing cell signaling molecules used for cancer research. In 1999, he began his government career managing chemical agent swatch testing at Dugway Proving Ground (DPG) in Utah. In 2003, he was promoted to group leader of the individual protection equipment testing group at Dugway, where he managed all individual protective equipment testing. Since December 2006, Gene had worked at the Joint Project Manager Office for Protection as the test and evaluation director, the systems engineering director, the science and technology advisor, and now the Transport Isolation System (TIS) project manager (Stark, 2014).

On the Brink of Pandemic

At the beginning of October 2014, the Ebola epidemic was the largest in history, raging through multiple countries in West Africa. The number of cases was increasing exponentially (see Exhibit 1) and there were concerns of a worldwide pandemic. The first case of the Ebola outbreak was reported in Guinea in March 2014, before spreading to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal. A separate Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was reported in August 2014. On September 18, the United Nations Security Council recognized the Ebola outbreak as threatening global health and security and unanimously adopted a resolution establishing a UN-wide initiative drawing together assets from relevant UN agencies to tackle the crisis. This was only the second time a disease had led to action by the Security Council; the first was the AIDS epidemic in January 2000 (Centers for Disease Control and Protection, 2014).

On September 30, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States when a man who had traveled from Liberia to Dallas, Texas, began showing symptoms four days after his arrival. Research confirmed the Ebola virus could be spread via direct contact with (1) the bodily fluids of a person who is sick with or has died of Ebola, (2) objects contaminated with the virus, or (3) infected fruit bats or primates (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).


Exhibit 1. Cumulative number of Ebola virus disease cases reported: five countries, West Africa, March 29–September 20, 2014.

The Joint Project Manager for Protection

Congress established the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) in 1993 for the joint acquisition of chemical and biological defense capabilities. This law designated the army as the executive agent and established the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs for oversight (see Exhibit 2). The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) was then established under the Army Acquisition Executive for program implementation. The JPEO-CBD was chartered with developing advanced chemical and biological defense products, including medical countermeasures. The Army Acquisition Executive delegated all milestone decision authority for JPEO-CBD programs to the Joint Program executive officer. There were seven joint project managers under the JPEO-CBD, with the JPM Protection being led by a Marine Corps civilian working in Stafford, Virginia (DTIC, 2009). As the TIS project manager, Gene Stark worked for the JPM Protection.


Exhibit 2. Chemical Biological Defense Program (CBDP) organization

The implementation plan also established the Joint Science and Technology Office in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) as the science and technology arm of the CBDP. DTRA provided science advisors to combatant commands, and the DTRA representative at U.S. TRANSCOM played a significant role in shaping the urgent requirement for the TIS (Stark, 2014).

A conceptual diagram of the TIS (see Exhibit 3) was developed by ACME, a small minority-owned business in the Midwest. (Note: The company name has been disguised for this case.) ACME was the original manufacturer of the much smaller ABCS for the Centers for Disease Control. ACME provided TRANSCOM with a cost estimate of US$100,000 for each TIS unit (Stark, 2014).


Exhibit 3: Transport Isolation System concept drawing.

The Urgent Operational Need

The urgent operational need for the TIS required that the capability be in place by December 31, 2014. There was a requirement for 25 systems, and these systems had to be: (1) interoperable with tie-downs and electrical systems on aircraft capable of loading 463L pallets, (2) operated by U.S. military personnel, (3) compatible with current material handling equipment, (4) capable of disposing all contaminants post flight at an authorized facility, (5) in compliance with all Air Force Mobility Command safety constraints, and (6) accessible for proper training of aircrew on how to safely transport infected personnel (U.S. TRANSCOM, 2014).

Although not stated in the formal requirement, coordination with U.S. TRANSCOM indicated that they were expecting other capabilities from the system, including that the TIS would: (1) be a palletized, modular system configurable for occupancy of up to 12 seats or 8 litters; (2) transport patients in seats or litters with the ability for healthcare providers to safely enter and exit; (3) contain toilets for patient use and pass-through ports to insert medical equipment hoses/tubes into the patient compartments; (4) maintain negative pressure; (5) be leak-proof; (6) utilize High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) filters to treat the air entering and exiting the TIS in order to ensure safety of the aircrew and other personnel; and (7) have a decontamination capability (Stark, 2014).

Initial Issues

Although Congress had recently approved a US$1 billion reprogramming action (moving funding from one approved project to another) for Ebola efforts, the funds had not been reprogrammed from the Army Overseas Contingency Operations account and, therefore, were not available. Due to a Congressional Continuing Resolution Authority, JPM Protection had only US$1.8 million in fiscal year 2015 procurement funds that could be used for the TIS while it awaited the reprogrammed funds. The supporting documentation for the urgent operational need had estimated the cost of each TIS unit at US$100,000, for a total procurement cost of US$2.5 million.

Also, initial discussions with ACME revealed that their cost estimate assumed time of production was not constrained, and it included no spare liners or other logistics sustainment provisions. ACME identified a number of other issues that would make it difficult to meet the December 31st deadline. First, the blowers that manage the air flow for the TIS were only available in sufficient quantity to build the test articles. The remainder needed for the production articles had a 20-week lead time to build from scratch once an order was received. Further, the aviation-grade fasteners used to attach the TIS frame and chairs to the 463L pallet were not available from the manufacturer until at least mid-January 2015. Finally, once all materials were in place, ACME could produce only two TIS per week.

However, due to long lead time items, it was imperative that JPM Protection get a contract in place quickly. Initial contract research identified that no contracting vehicle existed or could be readily modified with ACME for this type of item. Discussions between JPM Protection and the Joint Science and Technology Office on generating a combined contract action gained little traction. DTRA contracting was concerned it would slow down their efforts to get a separate contract in place to acquire and test TIS production representative items. Even with a contract in place, ACME could not start building production articles until they were done building the test articles, and that was not scheduled to happen until the end of November 2014.

In addition to the challenge of simply getting the TIS produced, there were added complications when it came to test and evaluation requirements for an air transportable system. The safe-to-fly and associated testing by the Air Transportability Test Loading Agency needed to be completed sooner rather than later. Their analysis to determine whether the TIS met the stringent restraint conditions would take several weeks after a production item was complete and normally had to be accomplished prior to any flight testing.

As Gene Stark got out of his car, he received a calendar invitation on his Blackberry for a meeting first thing Monday morning with his boss at the JPM. Given that he had less than three months to deliver the TIS, Gene knew the boss would expect a briefing on his approach to meet the urgent need. Gene weighed the many challenges confronting his team. It was going to be a long weekend (Stark, 2014).

TIS Case Study Assignment Questions

  1. How would you approach the funding, lead time, production, and testing issues associated with developing the TIS?
  2. What are the highest risk items on this project and how would you address them?
  3. How would you propose to meet the TIS delivery date of December 31, 2014?

Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Gene Stark, Scott Paris, Domenic Thompson, Greg Brown, Alex Dutko, Bruce Laher, and Paul Stultz to support preparation of this case while they were students in the program manager's course at the Defense Acquisition University.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, October 3). Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 63 (39).

Defense Technical Information Center. (2009). Department of defense chemical and biological defense program. Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2009cbrn/Reed.pdf

Defense Technical Information Center. (2015). The department of defense chemical and biological defense program 2015 annual report to congress.

Stark, G. (2014, November 12). TIS project background. (Personal interview with the author).

U.S. Transportation Command. (2014, September 29). Joint urgent operational need statement for the transport isolation system (TIS).

© 2015, Owen C. Gadeken
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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