Story by Bruce Huffman
Michigan National Guard
Lansing, Mich. – Days after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer tapped the Michigan National Guard to assist with supply distribution management of $275 million in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and supplies to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Working closely with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and the Michigan State Police to conduct an accountability audit, and optimize warehouse and distribution operations, the Soldiers of the Michigan National Guard’s Task Force Tiger handed over operational control of a 130,000 square foot warehouse full of PPE to the State of Michigan July 17th.
With more than 71 million COVID-19 related items organized on the shelves, and new distribution and supply chain processes in place, this sustainable new capability enables state employees to efficiently ship vital PPE from the warehouse in Lansing to municipalities and first responders throughout Michigan within hours instead of days or weeks.
“We began the mission with 35 engineers from across the state and four MDOC personnel,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randall L. Hartlerode, an engineer from the 507th Engineer Battalion in Kalamazoo, Mich. and the commanding officer of the Soldiers tasked with organizing and distributing the PPE. One of their first missions was setting up equipment in COVID -19 emergency field hospitals in Detroit and Novi, Mich. “Since March we’ve participated in a civil disturbance in Grand Rapids, the flood in Midland, Mich., COVID-19 testing in the prisons, and the distribution of PPE,” said Hartlerode.
As the number of infections rose, there was a nationwide shortage of PPE. COVID-19 supplies were on back order for months, but soon a flood of deliveries began showing up at various locations. “Things were so spread out, it was difficult to know exactly what you had,” said Hartlerode. So he sent eight-man forward coordination cells to locate items and ship them to a 130,000 square foot warehouse in Lansing. The pallets were broken down, each item was counted, repacked, and stored for easy access.
“I was a shipping and receiving manager at a small abrasives recycling plant during my first year of college, but I’ve never seen anything on this scale before,” said Corporal Zakariah K. Blackmon. “Back then, we would take in eight to 12 pallets per day. Whereas here, we can take in as many as 400 pallets per day.” Blackman, who is from Iron Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has been in the National Guard for eight years, and says he plans to stay for 20.
“Serving in the warehouse means a lot to me,” said Blackmon. “It’s not something everyone gets a chance to do. I have the opportunity to help people working around the state in the fight against COVID -19, and I think we’re really making a difference.”
According to Hartlerode, having 15 to 20 trucks waiting to unload is normal. “Some of it comes in organized and some of it arrives a mess, you just have to open the door and see what’s there,” said Hartlerode. Some of the Soldiers were assigned to a quick reaction force (QRF). “If a truck showed up in the middle of the night, the QRF had to get out of bed and come unload it,” he said.
The warehouse is about the size of three football fields, and busting at the seams, according to Hartlerode. “In the back of the warehouse we have long-term storage of durable goods like beds, hand washing stations, copiers and office equipment that’s needed to set up field hospitals. On the other side we have PPE like masks, gloves, gowns and other items that are continuously being shipped here and redistributed in smaller amounts to the municipalities and first responders,” said Hartlerode. The State of Michigan contracted with a local company to build custom racking to help organize the items. “We’ll be able to get even more supplies in here once the racking is built,” he said.
According to Hartlerode, there are 7,000 beds stored at the Detroit Detention Center that need to come to Lansing, and they will be arriving soon on MDOC trucks. “We currently have about 70 percent of the items here, and the rest is coming.”
Toward the end of the mission, Hartlerode reduced to 14 Soldiers, MDOC to two personnel, and the State of Michigan provided 10 personnel in anticipation of the turnover. “It’s been a constantly evolving joint effort,” said Hartlerode. “We report our progress to the State of Michigan and up our military chain of command, but we also send reports back to each Soldier’s individual unit for accountability,” said Hartlerode. Recently four Soldiers and Hartlerode had to go to Grayling for rifle qualifications, which left only 10 Soldiers to manage the warehouse. “We still have to meet our military requirements in addition to work at the warehouse,” said Hartlerode. “You have to be ready, anticipate future requirements, and develop innovative solutions,” he said. “We’ll be ready if COVID-19 ramps up with a second wave.”
“This is a brand new capability for the State of Michigan,” said C. Todd Bechler, MDOC. “Knowing what we have available, and being able to same-day ship items, has taken us to a whole new level of readiness. Disasters like COVID-19 put an incredible strain on the supply chain,” said Bechler. “If a second wave of COVID-19 ramps up, or any other disaster occurs, Michigan will be ready!”