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Foam test e-mail overflows with perception problems

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- A B-1 hangar is filled with more suds than a jolly-green-giant-sized keg. There are people standing around with suds up to their eyeballs. People are standing on top of the rafters in the building as foam and bubbles continue to rise.

Did a glacier melt in South Dakota? Did some kind of ultra-secret government underground brewery guarded by a pack of classified rabid gnomes have a freak accident? Most importantly, which maintenance troop's head rolled for this one? Actually, it's none of the above. If you've seen this email that seems to be burning up the communication lines across the Department of Defense, then brace yourself: That hangar was filled with foam on purpose.

A modern high-expansion foam system was placed in the hangar to replace an aging fire suppression system, said Lt. Col. Navnit Singh, 28th Civil Engineer squadron commander. The contractor responsible for installing the system submitted a plan for a test procedure prior to installation, which was approved, he added.

The test of the new foam system was conducted Aug. 23. Total coverage of the aircraft silhouette occurred within one minute of the system being activated. The test was so successful; the foam reached the observation platform where officials were documenting the procedure.

The Air Force required a minimum of one meter of foam to be achieved in four minutes or less. For testing purposes, the foam was allowed to disperse for the full four minutes.

The observers were surprised at how quickly the system generated the fire suppressing foam, said Col. Singh.

In fact, the system worked so well, the technician had difficulty in reaching the shut-off switch. The exterior door of the hangar was opened before the test was fully completed. These events account for the photos of the amount of foam inside and outside of the hangar.

So, did someone have a gross miscue? Nope. On the contrary, a fire suppression system responsible for helping protect vital mission-essential assets and, most importantly, for helping safeguard Airmen's lives, worked extremely well.

The foam system exceeded Air Force standards, Colonel Singh said.

The kind of miscommunication an e-mail can have, like the one circulating with the pictures of the fire suppression test can have, is pretty significant.

Master Sgt. Dana Rogers, squadron superintendent of network security at Ellsworth, said e-mails such as the one depicting the foam test "misrepresent our capabilities" and can even cause damage to computer networks.

"You think it's so funny, so you send it to 10 people. Then, they send it to 10 more. This takes up an extremely large amount of e-mail space and can lead to the loss of a resource," he said.

Another aspect of e-mails that miscommunicate facts is the amount of time someone may have to take in order to set the record straight. An e-mail that took two seconds to send may take hours to fix.

There is definitely the potential for a loss in work time for people in leadership positions, said Sergeant Rogers.

Mr. Mark Wheeler, 28th CES deputy commander, agrees.

"Lt. Col. Singh and the entire squadron have spent too much time on this issue," he explained.

Mr. Wheeler said Colonel Singh spent over 20 hours investigating this incident, and there were many more hours of investigation done by other members of the squadron who were attempting to re-trace steps and gather facts that would lead to the truth of the matter surrounding the pictures of the foam test. Instead of focusing on this circulating e-mail, Mr. Wheeler said Colonel Singh's time could have been better spent.

The commander could have been focusing his attention on preparing 43 squadron members for a June deployment to a combat zone, preparing for the upcoming operational readiness inspection and overseeing 498 assigned personnel along with the 7.9 thousand acres and 4.4 million square feet of buildings that are his responsibility, Mr. Wheeler said.

The pictures being sent from computer to computer showing a hangar full of foam at Ellsworth do not depict a gross mistake on someone's part. Instead, it's a life-saving device that worked better than expected.

In this day and age of instant information and rapid-fire technology, think twice about what's forwarded on government computers. This email has probably been seen by most Air Force members by now and has reached our sister services, civilian organizations and national media.

"A CES commander's schedule is very demanding," said Mr. Wheeler. "Any time spent responding to an incident like this is a drain on a very precious resource ... time."

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