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DHA’s new Joint Operations Center serves as essential integration hub

Three military personnel looking at a document Don Dahlheimer, Defense Health Agency’s deputy assistant director for Combatant Command Operational Support (right) briefs Army Brig. Gen. George Appenzeller, DHA’s assistant director for combat support; and Army Sgt. Maj. Esteban Alvardo, senior enlisted advisor to the assistant director for combat support, about the DHA’s new Joint Operation Center’s capabilities. (Photo by Mark Oswell, MHS Communications.)

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The Defense Health Agency relies on rapid information exchange to provide combat support to U.S. military forces stationed worldwide. With many changes taking place in military health care and the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, integrated communication from the bottom to the top, and vice versa remains essential for service members, civilians, stakeholders and beneficiaries.

The Joint Operations Center (JOC) acts as a conduit for this information. As the information hub of DHA, the JOC collects requests and data from across the Military Health System, including the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and a variety of other military organizations. The JOC then provides that information to the proper authorities in DHA to take action.

“By ensuring that the JOC is getting current and accurate information, we can make sure that the DHA leadership provides our primary stakeholders with the best resources we can offer,” said Neil Doherty, head of the Operations Division at DHA.

DHA recently finished construction of a new facility for the JOC within DHA headquarters. Formerly operating from a series of reserved conference rooms, the JOC is now co-located in one space that improves its capabilities. The facility offers advanced screens to monitor and project information, the ability to host video calls with remote locations through VTC, and a secure space to hold meetings with high-ranking leaders.

Jerry Vignon, manager of DHA’s continuity program, emphasized the importance of the monitoring screens in the JOC’s day-to-day activities. The screens allow the JOC to display different types of information and data feeds, from open source material like news outlets and weather services to health surveillance information - all of which are vital to DHA leadership, he explained. This capability keeps the JOC up-to-date without having to relay information being ferries to and from various offices.

“If something does hit the airwaves, we are aware of it right away,” Vignon said. “It gives us more of a real-time connectivity to information that’s helpful for us as we're responding to events around the world.”

While each of the services and combatant commands has a JOC of their own, DHA’s unique operations center brings all of them online together in one secure location to discuss issues pertinent to military health care. Air Force Col. Jennifer Garrison, deputy chief and deputy assistant director for Combatant Command Operational Support at DHA, shared how the JOC’s Joint Staff calls help connect the services in order provide the best possible healthcare for our warfighters and their families.

“You have Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and all the services on call at the same time,” she explained. “It’s a way for them to ensure that if there’s a concern like a pandemic or any contingency, that we have 24/7 coverage to keep information flowing to make critical decisions collectively with our stakeholders in a timely manner,” she said.

This collaboration has proven to be essential during the DHA’s support of the national emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The JOC stood up a crisis action team, or CAT, made up of subject matter experts who work together to share information on wide-impact, unplanned events like the pandemic. The team met regularly to funnel information about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 throughout the Military Health System so that leaders at all levels could make necessary decisions for their commands to fight the pandemic.

“The JOC is the first line of defense when it comes to working with the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and services for support and knowing all the critical information to improve on readiness, safety, quality, and patient expectations across the Military Health System.” Garrison said. “So, if they need something for COVID-19, whether it is flu immunizations, blood, equipment, or supplies, that’s able to be communicated at this level.”

Now that they have the facility to support around the clock operations, Doherty said that the next step is to fully staff the center.

“The goal is to get staffed up to support 24/7 operations so that we are connected to all of the organizations in the Department of Defense across the globe,” Don Dahlheimer, deputy assistant director for Combatant Command Operational Support at DHA. “It’s a great opportunity for the agency to efficiently collaborate with our DoD, component, and interagency stakeholder, and across the DHA in support of our beneficiaries and warfighters.

“We want to ensure the best possible care from the battlefield to our military medical treatment facilities, and this JOC supports collaborative communications,” concluded Dahlheimer.

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