By Timothy Phares

The onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic had an immediate impact on the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), requiring a rapid adjustment in global facilities maintenance support operations. In response, OBO Director Addison “Tad” Davis IV organized a task team to prepare a global facility support plan. Office of Facility Management (FAC) Director Paul Schaefer further assessed FAC’s program support capabilities and tagged the International Maintenance Assistance Program (IMAP) as a key player in that plan. OBO has IMAP teams staffed with facilities maintenance professionals in various technical disciplines “at the ready” worldwide to sustain Department of State building operations where local skilled labor is not available.  

IMAP electricians attend “New Year Orientation,” where they learn different electrical techniques from the instructors. Photo courtesy of OBO
IMAP electricians attend “New Year Orientation,” where they learn different electrical techniques from the instructors. Photo courtesy of OBO

Under the management of FAC’s Maintenance Support Division, Maintenance Assistance Branch, supervised by Timothy Phares, IMAP provides 24/7 emergency facility maintenance support for critical building systems; routine preventive maintenance and repair; secure logistics and procurement; and on-the-job training in building systems for locally employed (LE) staff. Phares, along with OBO’s contracting officer’s representative (COR) and IMAP program manager for the prime contract Robert “Red” LaFleur and the contractor’s Program Administrator John Eck lead an outstanding, professional team contracted by Alutiiq Information Management, LLC that was recognized as runner up for the Department’s Small Business Prime Contractor of the Year award in 2019. IMAP’s performance during the current pandemic demonstrates that the award was well-deserved.

IMAP technician Edward Schenk troubleshoots a Caterpillar generator at the U.S. Consulate General Dubai. Photo courtesy of OBO
IMAP technician Edward Schenk troubleshoots a Caterpillar generator at the U.S. Consulate General Dubai. Photo courtesy of OBO

In February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect international travel and the safety of work environments in overseas facilities. IMAP began rapidly adjusting scheduled overseas facility maintenance support deployments to meet the changing landscape.  To maximize IMAP’s operations, the IMAP administrators intensified their communications with post’s management teams and with OBO’s Regional Support Centers in Frankfurt and Fort Lauderdale to coordinate sustained IMAP team deployments to all six regions. OBO’s strategy circumvented repatriation of IMAP teams working overseas and maintained their continued support to vital facility operations when other forward-deployed services were curtailed in response to the pandemic. 

At each mission where IMAP was deployed, its teams complied with the pandemic restrictions of the Department, post, and host country. Each IMAP team varied their local work schedules to comply with local restrictions, often working after normal working hours, in isolation, or when working with post managers and LE staff, wearing personal protection equipment and practicing strict social distancing. The IMAP teams were regularly subjected to onsite COVID-19 testing or testing 48–72 hours before entering the host country. Another new experience for the teams were frequent quarantines in countries in lockdown, mandated for new arrivals, or in response to reports of potential contact with persons reporting COVID-19 symptoms or positive tests. The deployed IMAP team members demonstrated remarkable flexibility and creative solutions in helping posts sustain their facilities.

The IMAP program includes a staff of 35 personnel who work in domestic facilities that went to 100 percent telework in immediate response to the pandemic. Teleworking posed new operational challenges to the IMAP office staff, including constant and consistent monitoring and focus on the Departments’ ongoing pandemic operating requirements, international travel restrictions, and continual reporting of IMAP overseas personnel location, health, and safety. These new operating challenges provided opportunities to improve IMAP communications and new resources to enhance online reporting via Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Power BI (a business analytics service) interactive maps. The IMAP team began issuing daily pandemic reports that detailed real-time personnel locations, stay-at-home and standby status, and operational work status for every IMAP employee currently or planned to be deployed overseas. 

Despite the hardships of traveling overseas and the difficulties in procuring and shipping team equipment while teleworking, IMAP personnel continues to be resilient in their mission to help posts maintain facility functions.

Throughout the pandemic, the IMAP team capitalized on opportunities to train personnel, perform extended maintenance and repair service, and respond promptly with emergency facility assistance. When several of IMAP’s power generation equipment teams were grounded at the beginning of the global outbreak, the team obtained certifications from the Electrical Generating Systems Association. This nationally recognized technical qualification enhances the team’s capabilities and technical knowledge. 

Despite the worldwide and Department reduction in on-site personnel and services, IMAP deployed emergency facility assistance teams to more than 30 posts to assist the facility maintenance office with the sustainment of critical and non-critical building systems. 

An IMAP technician cleans the condenser coils at Embassy Djibouti. Photo courtesy of OBO
An IMAP technician cleans the condenser coils at Embassy Djibouti. Photo courtesy of OBO

An example of their efforts was at Embassy Djibouti, where the facility management team discovered damage to the compound’s critical power cables. The damaged electrical cable prohibited the use of post’s emergency power backup generator system in the event of utility power failure. IMAP coordinated with post for the procurement and delivery of needed parts, safety equipment, and other onsite requirements for the deployment of an IMAP electrical team. The team’s electricians immediately addressed the issue, de-energizing and isolating the power cable, replacing the damaged electrical feeder with a new cable, testing and verifying that the primary and backup power supply functioned as designed, and restoring normal power to the embassy compound. 

At Embassy Nairobi, post experienced a catastrophic utility power supply failure when an electrical surge from the Nairobi commercial power grid induced excessive voltage onto post’s electrical system. This surge caused extensive equipment damage throughout the embassy compound and shut down its primary and backup power supply sources. Post’s facility management team requested support from OBO’s Facility Management Power Support Program and IMAP to assess the damage and perform repairs. Before IMAP arrived, the post’s LE staff restored one backup power generator—enough to power essential security and communications—and rented two generators to power other critical building systems. At the time, both rental generators failed, leaving post with only 40 percent of one generator.

IMAP technician Elton Doxie repairs and replaces burned out diodes on one of Embassy Nairobi’s generators. Photo by James Ramey
IMAP technician Elton Doxie repairs and replaces burned out diodes on one of Embassy Nairobi’s generators. Photo by James Ramey

After extensive remote communication and research, the IMAP office’s travel management team navigated new pandemic travel difficulties and remarkably deployed an IMAP generator team to post within just a few days following the power outage. The team repaired damaged electrical equipment and worked around the clock to reconnect the embassy compound to the utility power grid. The IMAP team’s work with the post’s facility LE staff included digging trenches, pulling new compound feeder cables, and addressing all repair details necessary to get post operational again. The team’s dedication to quickly restore all facilities and equipment to safe operation minimized downtime for post operations and allowed post personnel to return to work promptly.

IMAP continues to be well-positioned to sustain successful operations through the continued and unprecedented circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“OBO is grateful to IMAP and those who work alongside them to keep people safe while executing the Department’s mission around the world on behalf of the American people,” said Director Davis.  

Timothy Phares is the branch chief of the Maintenance Assistance Branch in the Maintenance Support Division of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Office of Facility Management.