Col. Ronald Fizer went from perhaps the most bustling hub of military and civic activity to an outpost straight out of “Home on the Range,” but he said he has found similarities between Dugway Proving Ground and Washington, D.C.
“It is a lot different, but surprisingly there are a lot of things that overlap,” he said.
Before taking over as commander of Dugway in July, the Butler, Penn.-native worked with the joint chiefs of staff at Army headquarters in the Pentagon.
There, his duties primarily focused on combating weapons of mass destruction by coordinating with foreign governments to halt the construction and storage of WMDs, and how to react if one were used.
At Dugway, he said, the mission is, at its heart, much the same.
“We have been, since our inception, a chemical and biological proving ground, once in an offensive-focused area, now all defensively focused — the ability to prevent the use or protect against the use,” he said. “On the surface, people wouldn’t really see the connection; Dugway is primarily about testing capabilities and making sure we can deliver that to the warfighter, and the Pentagon, they’re about economic resources and big policy decisions.
“But there is a relatively short, direct connection to the things that are being done from my office,” he added, “let alone the acquisition committee, which is directly involved in what we do.”
In Dugway’s role of defense, equipment is rigorously tested to make sure it functions as it is designed — which is especially important for gear designed to detect dangerous substances or protect a person from toxic elements.
“You don’t want to be moderately confident that your mask is going to protect you against chemical warfare agents,” said Fizer. “You want to have a high degree of confidence that it’s going to protect you. We work with our acquisition community to make sure we have the test requirement, that we are doing everything we can to validate that capability.”
Fizer, 47, said he knew there would be obvious differences between Dugway and D.C. — specifically in Dugway’s remote location. In D.C., where he was based for his last three assignments, Fizer said almost anything could be found relatively near, though it might take an hour to drive five miles to it.
Here, that hour is needed to get to the nearest Walmart, let alone facilities for specialized medical care and other necessities. Dugway, though, is mostly self-sufficient with a commissary, shopette, its own water system, backup electric grid and emergency medical care, he said. That was particularly useful during the recent power loss from the Patch Springs Wildfire, during which Dugway remained open for business.
“We managed to get through the weekend with no real big impacts to the mission,” he said. “We were able to adjust workflow and make sure everybody had power to get back on track.”
Another inherent challenge at Dugway is the different groups of people required to accomplish its mission, Fizer said. There are rules and schedules that apply to soldiers, others that go for civilian workers, and still others that dictate the work of contractors. And those are only the broadest three categories — there are more than 20 tenant organizations on-base.
As a result, teamwork is imperative.
“The challenge you have is that there is no standard single process that applies to everyone,” he said. “It really is the fact that we have to work together, recognizing our differences and recognizing the fact that we may have challenges in how we can direct activities to occur because of the management restrictions and contracting constrictions. But at the end of the day, it’s all about accomplishing the mission.”
That being said, Dugway does work together well, said Fizer, and it does the job with a comfortingly high safety record, especially given some of the substances used in the course of missions.
“We have a lot of good foundational processes that have been put into place here, so on an individual and organizational level, there is a lot of ability to do their job well,” he said. “With the things that we deal with here, safety is important at any time. It doesn’t matter if you’re just going to work as a teacher. But when you’re going to work with chemical agents or you’re dealing with flying unmanned aerial systems, working with training out in a desert environment, safety becomes paramount, and we have a really strong safety program.”
Fizer said he has also been impressed with the workforce’s dedication to the job and ability to think outside the box when it comes to problem-solving.
“The work ethic of the individuals is also very positive and somewhat enlightening,” he noted. “I’ve been told about it but to see it first-hand was illuminating, how many people are dedicated to doing their job well.
He added, “One of the challenges we face that I’ve been more keenly aware of is being a more remote installation and the organizational construct that we have is creating some challenges that require unique solutions that would not work in other Army installations, in some cases because of the size, in some cases because of the locations, in some cases because of the mission.”
Despite the differences from northern Virginia, where he and his wife, Renee, lived for the last six years, Fizer said they are adjusting. Renee is looking for ways to become more engaged with the community and share her professional and personal experience to help people in the area.
For himself, Fizer said he’s getting up-to-speed with Dugway’s operations. Dugway is succeeding at its mission, and the only change he can think of to make is to see if efficiency can be increased.
“I think in general we do a good job, but like anything we do, we can always get better, so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve,” he said. “The level of emphasis we’re placing on the continuous process of improvement, especially on the mission side, so we can run tests that are efficient, we don’t have wasted steps, and that we can repeat those results and be reliable to our customer.”