AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar— A team of five Airmen with the 379th Expeditionary Public Health Element work silently behind the scenes to ensure the collective health of all service members here.
The Airmen are responsible for inspecting food related facilities and public-use facilities; such as the pools, gyms and latrines. The team also clears Airmen for forward deployment and tracks and monitors trends in communicable diseases. In a deployed location, where nearly 9,000 people have limited options when it comes to eating, exercising, socializing, sleeping and just simply living, Public Health faces unique challenges.
Twenty two facilities here require food related inspections and 17 of those facilities are inspected on a monthly basis. The frequency of inspections is based on the risk potential associated with the types of food and food handling necessary at each facility. The remaining facilities, where food items are generally pre-packaged, require less frequent inspections.
“Food safety is a big part of public health,” said Technical Sgt. Alina Ness, non-commissioned officer of food safety and sanitation assigned to the EPHE of the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group.
One way the team works to ensure a safe food supply is by conducting a food vulnerability assessment. The assessment is designed to help determine whether or not the main food storage facility on base has the proper precautions in place and in practice to ensure the food supply remains safe and secure.
“We look at temps on everything, food, refrigerators, freezers, delivery temps,” said Captain Sonny Gear, element chief, assigned to the 379th EMPG/EPHE, explaining one of the many important aspects observed during a typical food facility inspection. “Our job is not just to go out there, inspect them and document sanitation, it’s also about education,” Gear added.
Another big part of food related inspections is verifying that everyone working with the food has food safety knowledge and is practicing proper food handling.
Like inspections conducted at food facilities, Public Health also inspects all the other places utilized by the community here. Health related inspections are also conducted on 15 public-use facilities. These inspections typically focus more on facility cleanliness, proper working and serviceable equipment, available supplies, sanitation practices and proper record keeping/documenting where applicable.
Gear compares the approach of public health to a visit to your doctor. When you visit the doctor, he explains, the doctor specifically focuses on you and your individual health. “We are trying to look at what can affect everybody,” Gear says, “It’s a community-based approach.”
If you have forward deployed from here to another base in the U.S. Air Force Central Command Area of Responsibility, you are probably familiar with the role Public Health plays in ensuring that everyone is prepared with up-to-date immunizations and medications. They make sure all the necessary boxes are checked before Airmen move to a new environment where the immunization requirements may be different. According to Gear, the task load related to deployment readiness varies greatly depending on the movement of Airmen from here to other locations throughout the AOR.
Tracking communicable disease and outbreaks is another important aspect of mission support conducted by the Public Health team.
“Anything that can be spread through person to person contact, through food or through airborne means is tracked by Public Health,” said Gear. Without data it can be difficult to make a decision about anything. The data collected by Public Health becomes especially important when it is related to the health and readiness of the military’s most valuable asset; its Airmen. By tracking communicable disease, Public Health can determine the types of bacterial or viral infections that may show up on base. This data helps them make appropriate decisions regarding action and recommendations.
“A big concern here is the patrons that come in,” said Ness regarding the people that use the public facilities, especially the dining facilities at Al Udeid. “The reason we get sick, is usually us,” she adds in reference to the people using the facilities every day. She goes on to explain how important it is to wash our hands properly.
“We are all trying to work together to keep everybody safe,” said Ness.
The next time you are washing your hands for 20-seconds before eating at the dining facility, or getting ready to wipe down the bench-press bar after working out at the gym, take moment to pause and say thank you to the Public Health team for helping to keep us safe. It’s certainly not an easy task in an environment where close to 9,000 people literally sit at the dinner table together every day. Unlike the number of sorties flown or the number of successful re-fueling missions completed, the number of people who are healthy because Public Health is simply doing their job is a number no one will ever see. Rest assured though, it’s a big one.