Fort Drum security personnel provide first line of defense against COVID-19
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (April 2, 2021) – Preventing unauthorized persons from entering a military installation is essential to maintaining a safe community, and every day, Department of the Army security personnel perform this duty diligently.
But how do you keep an invisible virus from creeping past the gates?
With the global pandemic persisting for more than a year now, the men and women serving at access control points became the first line of defense against COVID-19 at Fort Drum and at installations across the Army.
Fort Drum Access Control Section Capt. David Mabry said that, as essential front-line workers, security guards had a vital role in protect-
ing the health and safety of the community during the pandemic.
“Being security, we can’t do our
Over the past year, Fort Drum security personnel serving at access control points became the first line of defense against COVID-19. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
jobs remotely, so we didn’t have the option of working from home,” he said. “Every day, we came to work, had our temperatures checked, we put on our masks and gloves and did what we had to do to keep Fort Drum safe.”
While the Fort Drum community adjusted to stay-at-home guidance, remote schooling and state travel bans, the installation remained open for business.
“We still had people coming and going every day,” Mabry said. “Construction vehicles, commercial trucks, vendors, family members, visitors – all of that was still happening.”
As the pandemic progressed, security guards enforced a growing set of mitigation measures at the gates through an enhanced screening process. The customary greeting they normally exchanged with motorists was supplemented with questions about recent travel history and exposure to COVID-19.
“We had to ask those questions – and it actually stopped a lot of people from coming on post who shouldn’t have been there – so that the virus did not rapidly spread on Fort Drum,” Mabry said.
Senior leaders established a restricted travel radius and required some visitors to request an exception to policy (ETP) to enter Fort Drum.
The ETP enabled commanders to approve Soldiers’ travel itineraries and allow them to receive visits from family members. Leaders could track where individuals were traveling to and from so that they could identify and respond appropriately to those who potentially were exposed to COVID-19 in high-risk areas.
Whether some people simply didn’t know the new policies or thought it didn’t apply to them, the access control personnel bore a lot of flak from visitors.
“There was definitely some verbal abuse,” Mabry said. “And the mental stress and frustration … we felt that, because we still had to worry about us getting the virus and bringing it home to our families.”
“It got more personal, you could say,” said Lt. James Johnson, supervisory security guard. “I think the pandemic had everybody on edge. People were wanting to come on post and see their loved ones or do what they normally would do. But now we have different procedures to get onto the installation, and that was hard for people to accept.”
Johnson said that the policies were established with the best intentions for public safety, but not everyone agreed, and they heard it daily.
“Our security guards understood the reasons why people wanted to get on post, but they had a job to do,” he said. “That meant rejecting some people from coming in, and that can be stressful at times.”
Mabry said there were also visitors who wanted to enter Fort Drum just because the infection rate was so low in the area and it seemed like a safe travel destination.
“We had a guy come up here from California who was once stationed at Fort Drum,” he said. “He was trying to come on post because he heard it was safe here, and I had to say ‘no.’ That’s not the way it works. And you had families bringing in more family residents from out of state because it wasn’t bad here.”
“When someone travels 500 miles or more, in some cases, and then get here and we have to tell them ‘no,’ then all of a sudden we become the bad guys,” Johnson added. “And that’s where the verbal abuse comes in, and people saying that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The infection rate did rise in the North Country, and the access control section was not immune to the trend.
“We probably had a couple of bad months that made it challenging for us,” Johnson said. “When we were hit with the virus ourselves and (we were) down some personnel, people were putting in extra hours to help cover shifts and pitching in whenever they could.”
“People got tested and they had to quarantine,” Mabry said. “And if anyone was around someone who tested positive, then those people quarantined out of caution. That did catch up with us. We had one security guard out for a whole month.”
Carl Schuck, acting chief of physical security at the start of the pandemic, said additional personnel was needed at the ACPs to handle both force protection and medical screening procedure.
“Our security mission did not stop at all, and our day-to-day operations did not change,” he said. “When we became that first line of defense or oversight against COVID-19, that additional effort was still to protect the people working and living on the installation. So our mission did not change.”
Lt. Rodney Bouyer said another challenge for security personnel was staying current on policy changes as it applied to gate access. At one point, all taxi and ride-sharing services were prohibited from operating on post, but that would be amended weeks later to allow for drop-offs of DoD cardholders.
“You could work your Monday through Wednesday shift, then come back in the next week and everything could change,” he said. “So you had to constantly stay up on what’s happening so you’re doing the right thing.”
Since General Order 1G was released in mid-March – the seventh update to Fort Drum’s COVID-19 mitigation measures – access control restrictions have returned to pre-pandemic status and the Trusted Traveler program was reinstated. Johnson said that this indication of a return to normalcy is something people have looked forward to for a long time.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, these guards put in a lot of effort day after day,” he said. “For the most part, everyone maintained a good positive attitude and got through it all.”
Mabry said that he was grateful when people took the time to submit comments through the Interactive Customer Evaluation (ICE) system.
“We did get our fair share of negative comments, but I really appreciated the ones where people went out of their way to be positive and mention some of the good things that the guards were doing,” he said. “I thank them for that because it gave us something to share with the guards, so they could see what this person was doing and where we could improve.”
Mabry said that the past year has tested the resiliency, adaptability and vigilance of each member of the Access Control Section. If another surge of COVID-19 arises locally or an entirely new pandemic hits the country years from now, they are equipped – both in personal protective equipment and knowledge – to react to it.
"We learned a lot this past year during the pandemic," Mabry said. "Our security team adapted extrordinarily well to constantly changing situtations, and they maintained a high level of professionalism while doing it."