The average Air Force civil engineer (CE) squadron is comprised of more than 100 Airmen specializing in disciplines ranging from electrical to structural engineering.
This diversity of skill and strength of numbers enables them to complete projects and conduct find and fix operations in situations when minutes can make the difference between mission success and failure.
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The importance of the CE mission is vital at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, and with the eyes of the world following the development of the region; the execution of KAF’s engineering operation rests squarely on the shoulders of only two Airmen.
“The workload here is comparable to any other civil engineer unit,” said 1st Lt. Tim Lord, 451st Expeditionary Support Squadron Civil Engineer Flight commander, deployed from Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. “There are three large CE functions here: facility management, project management and operations.”
With approximately 100 facilities under their jurisdiction, Lord and his enlisted counterpart, Staff Sgt. Gabriel Lara-Ortega, is the NCO in charge of the 451st ESS CEF, deployed from Beale Air Force Base, California, are responsible for ensuring facilities are in good working order.
“Every facility has a designated manager,” said Lara-Ortega. “We have to conduct training, coordinate with them, make sure they know what’s covered by that building’s contract and what kinds of things contractors are authorized to do. We meet with contractors weekly and coordinate with the NATO Support Agency, or NSPA, which is the entity that works the contractor side of the house. So we facilitate communication between all these moving parts to ensure things get taken care of.”
Independent of facility management, project management comes with its own unique requirements and work-arounds. Lord and Lara-Ortega oversee dozens of projects simultaneously, all of which must be held to the highest standard and executed to the letter of the contract.
“Currently we have 37 projects on the books totaling about $2 million,” Lord said. “We manage those projects day in and day out. Even though we’re a small shop we still have to provide the same capabilities we do back home. The key difference here is we coordinate with a lot of contractors and outside agencies to get the work done; it requires a level of flexibility and synchronization we’ve not previously dealt with.”
The final piece of the KAF’s CE triad, Lord and Lara-Ortega ensure the operations aspect remains effective through contract interpretation, a streamlined communication system, and putting out proverbial fires when unchartered territory calls for improvisation.
“We don’t have a customer service desk like you would normally encounter in a CE shop,” Lord said. “The customers, through the facility manager program run by Staff Sgt. Lara-Ortega, will go directly to the contractors to handle their issues. We come into the equation when the contractor doesn’t fulfil their duties or there’s confusion about what those duties are.”
When these unorthodox situations arise, Lara-Ortega intervenes.
“I clarify the confusion and work with the two parties,” he said. “If the issue is not covered under the original contract, we’re responsible for determining the best way forward. If there is a facility that needs work but is not on a contractor’s maintenance list, or a project on base that is not covered by a contract, it comes to us to either execute in-house or we have to write a contract for it.”
Having been operating as a two-man shop for more than four months, both Lord and Lara-Ortega have come to appreciate the organized chaos that comes with managing CE functions at a fast paced deployed location. When the Air Force assumed the role of senior airfield authority, the pair developed an even deeper appreciation for interagency coordination and efficient problem solving.
“Taking over as senior airfield authority was a big challenge,” Lord said. “Figuring out how to fund new projects on the airfield was a long endeavor which required us to reach out to stateside agencies. Projects on the airfield range from fixing bird air strike hazards all the way to changing parking plans, and in the four months we’ve been here we’ve worked through 181 work orders that fall under our airfield authority contract.”
In addition to those work orders, KAF’s dynamic CE duo have maintained 150 facilities throughout 14 different camps on base, completed 72 projects valued at nearly $10 million and completed the disposition of 196 obsolete items. In spite of their intense work load, Lord and Lara-Ortega still manage to maintain a healthy sense of humor.
“The only predictable thing in our day is that we’ll wake up, eat breakfast and come to work,” Lara-Ortega said. “After that, all bets are off.”
Laughing, Lord agreed with his wingman.
“It’s definitely a challenge, so it’s a good thing I enjoy a good challenge every now and again,” he said. “We perform a support function so it’s nice knowing that because of us people can have good crew rest, have working plumbing and proper heating, ventilation and air conditioning. We make a difference and that’s a good feeling.”
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