Rapidly standing up two COVID-19 hospitals at the height of the pandemic offers a master class in disaster preparedness and response.

Conti Federal Services Nurses Station, Industry Today
Conti Federal Services and Team at the Nurses Station at the COVID-19 hospital in St. Croix, USVI. Image: Conti Federal Services

By Patrick Hogan and Andrew Weber, Conti Federal Services

When the coronavirus crisis struck in early 2020, the U.S. government erected emergency hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. The Army Corps of Engineers turned to private-sector contractors to rapidly convert existing structures to medical facilities.

But the economy was closing down. Flights were canceled, supply chains disrupted, and manufacturing plants shuttered. It was the worst time to deliver medical-grade construction projects in accelerated timeframes.

Conti Federal was called on to convert a gymnasium in Paramus, New Jersey, in just 14 days and a National Guard barracks in St. Croix in 22 days. The daunting challenges and the strategies for success hold lessons for organizations across industries in how to prepare for and respond to disasters.

Meeting Disaster Challenges Head-on

The Paramus project converted the gymnasium of the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center to an alternate care facility (ACF) for 30 patients. The St. Croix effort converted a National Guard barracks to a 24-bed ACF to serve the U.S. Virgin Islands in case of a large COVID-19 outbreak.

Both undertakings included hospital-grade heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC), electrical and plumbing upgrades, emergency power supply, data wiring, fire protection, nurse stations, patient rooms, and more. Multiple teams worked around the clock (literally) in confined spaces while observing strict masking and sanitation protocols.

But the biggest challenges involved time and supply constraints. Work began before designs were completed, plans were modified on the fly, alternate materials were sourced when necessary, and resources were flown in when local talent was unavailable.

Of course, these factors are present in many disaster-response scenarios. While every organization hopes to avoid a catastrophe, if you ever face a disaster situation, follow these lessons learned to achieve disaster-response success:

  1. Rely on trusted relationships – No organization can respond to a disaster on its own. You need a network of vendors for specialized materials, equipment, and expertise.

    Building partner rapport begins before disaster strikes. With relationships of trust, you can get the support you need in the most difficult circumstances. In St. Croix, for instance, a trade partner that wasn’t even on the project was instrumental in helping Conti Federal navigate local markets.
  2. Get team members on the same page – In a disaster, trusted partners are of little use if they follow their own agenda. Make it a priority to align every partner and employee.

    In Paramus, we had eight scissor lifts, each with multiple workers, operating in a 6,000-square-foot space that required perfect orchestration to ensure safety and efficiency. In St. Croix, cross-functional teams assessed issues during the day, designed solutions at night, and ran over-the-shoulder work sessions with the customer every few hours.

    We’ve encoded this collaborative mindset in our own proprietary Warrior Lean™ construction management system. The methodology combines standard approaches of lean management such as plan-do-check-act (PDCA) and pull planning with maneuver warfare tactics, such as observe-orient-decide-act (OODA). Warrior Lean keeps projects on course even when the unexpected happens.
  3. Keep ahead of the clock – Disaster response doesn’t follow a schedule. You need the mindset and flexibility to act while you’re still assessing and course correct in real time.

    In Paramus, we started work the day we were awarded the contract, even before we had begun the design process. This included ordering HVAC units immediately because we knew those items had a long lead time. In St. Croix, we adapted design elements based on available materials since local supplies were limited on the island.
  4. Over-communicate and remain flexible – Don’t silo information. Tell partners and the customer about unexpected issues and solicit their input. You’ll gain their trust and benefit from their lessons learned.

    In St. Croix, we discovered just 30 hours before project completion that because of unforeseen issues with existing ductwork, the HVAC wasn’t performing to spec. With around-the-clock collaboration among team members, we were able to engineer a solution within the project deadline.
  5. Stay focused on the mission – Working with the Army Corps of Engineers to implement COVID-19 hospitals, we received our orders from an Army general, and everyone involved was motivated to serve the public good. Not every scenario has those built-in incentives. But inspiring a sense of purpose is crucial to disaster response.

    Executive leadership sets the tone. Your top people should guide the project and get involved in the details. Yet every team member should feel responsible. If a partner or subcontractor isn’t performing, make a change fast. At the same time, demonstrate that everyone counts. Put in place strict safety protocols and incentivize right behaviors.

To complete the St. Croix project on time, we chartered planes to airlift in materials. One partner reopened a shuttered plant to make a specialized pump, and the company’s owner personally drove the item to the airport to load it onto a Lockheed L-100 Hercules aircraft.

Inspiring those kinds of actions is how disaster response gets done. By following the steps described here, your organization can more effectively plan for and respond to an unexpected disaster. It’s how Conti Federal continues to get projects Done Once, Done Right.

About the Authors

Patrick Hogan Conti Federal Services, Industry Today
Patrick Hogan

Patrick Hogan, Vice President, has worked with Conti Federal Services for almost 30 years on several disaster response projects, namely hurricane Katrina and hurricane Sandy recovery, in addition to emergency COVID hospitals.

Andrew Weber Conti Federal Services, Industry Today
Andrew C. Weber

Andrew Weber, Program Manager, has worked with Conti Federal Services for 30 years on disaster response projects such as hurricane Katrina and hurricane Sandy emergency recovery, in addition to construction of COVID hospitals.

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