DUST: The shoe may fit, but does the foot fit the stair?

In planning, as in any undertaking, when a certain prevailing goal asserts itself as the principal one, other objectives and their respective goals all too frequently become subordinate—such is the nature of prioritization. A no-brainer. In a conflict zone, urgency often triumphs over pragmatism. In Afghanistan, a dozen different units can lay claim to territories within a nascent outpost base, each with widely varying intended uses for the land in order to meet their strategic component of the mission. Someone oversees the process to ensure that units are able to meet their needs without impinging upon the others, or violating the terms of any Land Use Agreements with the host nation’s government. However, all too often the hasty maneuvering elicits in some less than satisfactory configurations, such as a light industrial use occupying the exact center of a fortification, normally reserved for billeting (quartering of troops) and pedestrian-oriented uses. But the industry requires less manpower and a lot more land, so it receives the space early on in the development and subsequent residential quarters have to design around it. It’s like putting a bottling plant where the town square would normally go. In an ideal situation, the center of the base would host the most restrictive residential uses (residential and community support), but it only hurts the overall mission when other units are waiting at the doorstep, ready to install the infrastructure they need.

I can see where seemingly imprudent land use decisions must proceed because they meet ever critical short-term needs, even if they are a long-term disaster. But what about the planning involved in constructing individual buildings within a base?

Most military units and battalions, as they build the requisite structures for the implementation of respective missions, are impelled/compelled to abide by Minimum Military Requirements—a fundamental understanding that few if any new bases are going to be permanent installations, and thus the shelters should leave a minimal footprint and cost as little money as possible. It entails basic responsibility with public dollars. Thus, throughout bases like Camp Marmal, the American quarters typically look more like this:

A combination of Small Shelter Systems (SSSs) by different manufacturers: usually Alaska Structures or CAMMS, sometimes California tents. (The concrete objects to the right in the lower photo are bunkers to protect from rocket or mortar attacks.) Inside each residential tent is a labyrinth of ropes and carpets, strung from the side beams to form makeshift privacy partitions for the eight to sixteen people sleeping there, often in bunks. Compare this with the German quarters on the base:

The magnificent mountain backdrop may continue to distract from the humdrum foreground, but the fundamental point is clear: while nothing fancy, the Germans get modular units strung together along a double-loaded corridor. These narrow structures (sometimes nicknamed “hooches”) usually measure about 8 feet by 20’ and, I believe, hold two troops who share a bunk bed. As the photo indicates, each unit can control its own heating/cooling, and the structures sit on a graded base that is clearly meant to last. The Germans control the land on this base (reputedly purchased), and they can set their own standards, which, due to their long-term presence, ostensibly does not require a maximum threshold for construction sophistication. Thus, their compounds boast a higher number of hardened structures.

But the Americans, with a military presence in Afghanistan ten times the size of the Germans, are operating with different prerogatives. The original photo from this post captures a core concern in the prioritization of expediency over other planning elements. Two-story plywood structures typically host office and administrative functions, and they have been nicknamed SWA-Huts. They are always windowless.
By most measurements, these structures are suitable, perhaps even ideal, for hosting the administrative arms of long-term, non-permanent field operations. They’re quick and cheap to build. They’re easy to secure, and they manage extremes in climates better than tents, protecting the sensitive information and valuable equipment inside. Because the foundations and load-bearing walls can accommodate two stories, they offer the opportunity to consolidate personnel with interrelated tasks into a smaller space than the Alaska tents. And they remain in good shape just long enough for a long-term (5 to 10 year) installation, with little cost to demolish—or even to dismantle—when the work is complete, which is almost always a longer time frame than initially anticipated.

But nestled within these expeditionary structures are some deficiencies that, if built on the home front, would be illegal.
unsafe stairs at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan
From a distance, these stairs look no different than what one might see leading to an elevated deck in a person’s back yard. A landing bisects the stairwell so that it ascends perpendicularly, creating far less of a protrusion from the building than it would if it lacked this vertex. But the midway resting point almost helps disguise a serious design flaw. Notice the stairs on the lower half, below the landing:
unsafe stairs at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan
And now observe the stairs above the landing:
inconsistent widths to steps in a set of stairs in Afghanistan
It’s difficult for a photograph to capture the distinction (believe it or not, the snow actually helps), but perhaps some other angles will make it clearer. Again, here’s the lower half of the stairwell from the side:
inconsistent widths to steps in a set of stairs in Afghanistan
And viewing it looking downward:

And here’s the half from above the landing, from both the side…
inconsistent widths to steps in a set of stairs in Afghanistan
And looking downward.
stairs not up to basic code in Afghanistan
If it still isn’t clear, the treads to the steps are smaller below the landing than they are above. The construction team used two different sized boards, and the upper ones are about an inch wider; with two boards per step, the treads are about two inches wider on the upper portion. While this might not seem like a serious offense, for most people ascending and descending a staircase is a largely unconscious act, primarily because we safely assume that the rhythm our feet travel is going to be uniform. Few people climbing the stairs to this SWA-Hut have managed it without stumbling at least once or twice, and descending is particularly problematic at night, since the building has no exterior lighting. It is only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt. I still use a flashlight every night after having used this building for over a month; I’ve nearly wiped out a couple of times. Imagine the danger posed if personnel have to evacuate the building in a hurry, which is a legitimate possibility in a war zone.

The outside environment offers another example of a more justifiable but still unfortunate exclusion:

None of these offices have plumbing; everyone has to use port-o-lets. No structure would meet Minimum Military Requirements if indoor plumbing were installed, let alone the fact that it would have to link with a broader network and water/wastewater treatment system. No plumbing means no toilets and no sinks—no sinks means no place to wash hands after using the restroom in this crude, dirty environment. This has been illegal for approximately a century in the US. These green port-o-lets have little dispensers of sanitizer solution, but they are seldom operative, and no public health expert has ever suggested that this fashionable alcohol-glycerin combo should ever take the place of soap and hot water for killing bacteria. The closest latrines with a sink, water, soap, and flush toilets are a five minute walk away. Functionality, safety, and general sanitation take a back seat in the interest of getting the job done quickly and cheaply.

The building reveals other deficiencies on the interior that prevent the population from evacuating safely. It’s not just the stairs.  Notice the hinges on this door, leading to a second office from the entry room on the second floor of the building.

The door pivots to the interior. This inner room has no other exits. All personnel must leave through the door in the photo above, walking into another room first before exiting. Here are views from inside this interior room:

The 5 to 10 workers using this room at any time will have to pull on the closed door in order to open it, though modern building codes would require the hinges to operate so that the door requires pushing. Having a pull door only creates an impediment in the event of an emergency that requires evacuation. Unfortunately, most of the doors in the building have been installed under these standards.

Elsewhere on the base, code violations are less obvious, but a trained eye can certainly identify them, much like those treacherous stairs. I don’t have the skill set to spot most problematic circuitry, but many people on staff do.

Seen above is an extensive row of Small Shelter Systems, most likely Alaska tents, viewed from their “back yards”. The large box on the right side of the second photo is a 100-amp breaker. Here it is up close.

And here’s the other side of that 100-amp breaker…
…ports filled with 60-amp cables. This is not as dangerous as it sounds. But it is certainly not up to code. Under normal conditions, 60-amp cables can handle the current generated from a 100-amp breaker. The problem is the combination of excessive current coupled with extreme outdoor air temperatures, which is a legitimate concern in the Afghanistan summers, when temperatures can break 120 degrees and the air conditioners are cranking at full capacity. A 100-amp breaker often will not trip when the current is excessive until it’s too late, and there will be a short on the cable. The most likely outcome is nothing more than a series of ruined cables. In a worse case scenario—if these cords were covered with, for example, blankets or paper bags—the shortage of a cable could induce a fire.

In all likelihood, expediency supersedes optimization of supplies in each of these instances. It was not a deliberate act of carelessness to use two different sizes of boards on the treads of the stairs, or to link cables and a breaker with different current flows. The construction team had to do the best it could in a limited time frame with the materials that the workers received. But cost is undoubtedly also a factor, and the lack of uniformity does seem a bit surprising, considering that most units are contending with budget constraints. Take, for example, the back of these LSS (Latrine Shower Shave) units:

Notice that the middle latrine uses a different piping configuration than the other two. Elsewhere in this row, one can find some really creative pipe networks:

Wouldn’t it have saved money to buy the exact same pipe fittings? After all, most of the latrine units themselves are identical, presumably ordered in bulk. I have no idea what went on in the installation of these facilities, but it would appear that the LSS units and the plumbing came from different sources. Maybe these units weren’t all brand new, and some smaller pieces were lost in transit, resulting in pipe networks that the construction team cobbled together with whatever was available. The latrines may very well all operate with reasonable efficiency—the plumbing configurations are simply different means to the same end—but it would be virtually impossible for them to operate identically, since they use such different infrastructure.  Lack of standardization raises just as many potential problems here as it does with unequally sized boards on those stairs.

Frugality, expediency, and functionality make uncomfortable bedfellows in facilities planning, particularly in a military setting. It is difficult for any combination of the two to prevail and virtually impossible to achieve all three (the elusive “win-win-win situation”). Expediency is probably the explanation for the poor design to those stairs; it wouldn’t have been any more expensive to design them safely, but the materials weren’t available at the time.  Meanwhile, the disharmony of functionality and frugality is obvious; you get what you pay for. A good example of this is a bulk order of chairs that recently appeared in the American dining facility, a welcome contrast from the uncomfortable, noisy, awkward metal benches.

These chairs are lightweight, padded, and have a moderately ductile backs for reclining. They are also mind-bogglingly junky. The facilities operators introduced them in the handful of days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. At the time that I write, a month has passed, and I would estimate that over 80% of them look like this:

Good luck leaning back in that. The ductile plastic suffered from excess pressure applied to it; it snapped. Now the chair is little better than a stool. By no means is this an indication that the troops and civilians here are rough with the chairs. It doesn’t take engineering knowledge to see that these chairs had a design that encouraged leaning back, but they lacked the structural support to do so. The result was inevitable. And now they have had to order another set of chairs and reintroduce most of those abrasive metal benches. I can only hope that no one was seriously hurt from one these jalopies.

Analogous to this scenario is the one motivating the decision to mix amperage between cables and breakers: no doubt 60-amp cables cost less than 100 amp ones. Obviously the ratio of cables to breakers is high, so the aggregate cost savings for 5000 cables at 60 amps versus 100 amps is probably significantly greater than the savings for 100 breakers at 60 instead of 100 amps. And, as is indicated earlier, skimping out on the cables is not likely to result in catastrophe, which might not necessarily the case if the purchaser had ordered breakers with inadequate amperage and splurged on the cables. Neither one of these situations has caused any bodily harm that I’m aware of, but between functionality and cost, it is clear which variable won.

The glitches around and inside the two-story plywood office indicates the likely victor in a duel between functionality and expediency. It may not have cost any more to build stairs with uniform treads—in fact, it may have cost less—but it could have caused delays if the team had to wait for the appropriate supplies for a better design to the stairs. Most likely the shipment was partially wrong here and the builders had to make do with what they had at their disposal. (One of the neighboring two-story plywood structures seems to have uniform treads.) I’m not sure what motivated the installation of interior doors that swing the wrong way. Maybe it was a supply issue again, and they just didn’t receive the right hinges but had to build promptly. To me, the repeated occurrence of such an easily avoidable flaw is redolent of a hastily conceived design not fully vetted by architects or engineers.

The issue of quality control helps tie the last problematic pairing of our three variables: expediency and cost. Building a structure quickly with little thought to the design will inevitably result in a product that functions more poorly than it otherwise would. But building quickly is frequently also antithetical to building cheaply. A rush job often costs more, just as it costs to deliver mail express rather than standard. The situation at hand in a conflict zone changes routinely and demands immediate reaction, sometimes lacking the forethought it needs and frequently resulting in escalated costs in order to get the job done quickly. Foregoing the standards that US building codes set decades ago clearly speeds the process. Regulations and standards routinely intend to improve functionality but rarely help cost or speed/efficiency. Thus, we witness an abundance of poorly built structures–or carelessly design parts of structures like these stairs–which still cost significantly more than the sum of the individual parts would suggest, chiefly because time was of the essence.

Of the three variables—speed, price, quality—I would never assert that one always comes out the loser. All three rise or sink in importance in various situations; this is hardly profound. The unfortunate reality is that rarely do two of the three ever share top billing. The builders on a construction site are seldom culpable; they simply implement what they are told to do with the supplies given. Clearly the suppliers and implementers do not always communicate through the construction manager as well as they should, but to pin the blame on any of these entities fails to account for the logistical challenge of getting these supplies into a war zone. And thus, we get the stairs.  The people in charge of the purse strings are hardly steering the ship either; budgets shrink and grow from a variety of forces, the political one proving a formidable wild card. And any budget, no matter how well planned, will wilt under radically fluctuating costs.

In identifying all the safety compromises in the built environment of a military base in wartime, I identify a problem without a clear origin. These sort of problems, like the stairs featured here, are the wickedest of them all. No one would argue that the powers that be have anything to gain by turning a blind eye on US building codes and construction standards, but they very well lose out in other critical aspects of the mission if they always stop to mind the Ps and Qs. It fosters a climate of individual solicitousness, to identify these almost unavoidable weaknesses beforehand in order to prepare for them, because they’re not going to change. We residents of a base just have to remain vigilant and be sensible when encountering a potentially risky situation, like the unevenness of these stairs. I offer a final example of the best and worst with which the military must contend. Much of the construction work is required by national and international law to engage in the services of LNs, or Local Nationals: in this case, Afghan companies that have responded to RFPs. It does not take long from observing these generally industrious men to realize that Afghanistan has nothing resembling an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

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8 thoughts on “DUST: The shoe may fit, but does the foot fit the stair?

  1. Anonymous

    Military bases in war zones are inherently dangerous places; threat assessment seldom runs to whether solders, airmen, or Marines will get whacked by their own trucks while walking to the chow hall or injured escaping a barracks or office fire.

    The necessity of carrying an M-16 while working (and the absence of trial lawyers) probably diverts officers’ attention from dealing with potential slip-and-fall hazards.

  2. Diana

    Are any of these issues discussed among the soldiers or do they just take things in stride because they have other issues to contend with? I looked at the stairs and did not discover what the discrepancy was. But now I’m curious about using stairs with different size steps. Who knew it would actually make someone stumble.

  3. Anonymous

    Diana, Anon here.

    My son is a Marine combat engineer, and he was responsible for building some stuff in Afghanistan.

    Believe me when I say that no Marine necessarily “takes things in stride”, but they certainly don’t air their gripes beyond the unit. And the engineers in particular take some pride in improvisation and making-do with what they are given.

  4. AmericanDirt

    I would echo what Anonymous February 2 said. We see a lot of improvisation, and I’m sure the stairs are a good example. Sorry that they didn’t show up so well in the photos. Rest assured that we are starting to adapt to them and I haven’t heard of any big stumbles lately. It’s an austere environment, and “making do” is definitely just part the adaptation–as is the well-used phrase “situational awareness”.

  5. Anonymous

    An old business maxim is: “High quality, low price, fast delivery…Pick two.” Looks like this applies to military installations as well.

  6. Anonymous

    The idea that a temporary military base in a foreign country in a combat environment will or should be built to “CONUS” standards is a lofty idea. Good luck with that. I was stationed at Camp Marmal for a year 2011-2012. As a Marine veteran, I thought the accommodations were top notch compared to the conditions our troops dealt with in past wars. No complaints from me. I understand the need for a safe electrical installation; think Iraq. I believe most of those issues were dealt with and corrected or mitigated in Afghanistan. As far as the soldiers go…..only a “Fobbit” would complain about “Conditions” on a FOB like Camp Marmal. Try living at an Outpost for a few months. Camp Marmal was a palace.

  7. AmericanDirt

    Thank you for your comment, Anonymous from December 11, 2014. If you read the entirety of my blog post, you’ll notice that I am generally complimentary of the conditions at Camp Marmal, which I recognize were well above par, both for a FOB and even for a RC enduring base. Much of this, of course, is due to the inordinately high amount that Germans invested in this base instilled in this base, which on a per capita basis vastly surpasses the Americans, but that meaningless in the long run, since the Germans/Norwegians were contributing a fraction of the budget to the effort in Afghanistan that the Americans were. And the Americans were continuing to invest in the conditions on their compounds as I left the base in spring of 2012.

    At the same time, I’m not sure those “electrical issues” you encountered in Iraq were fully dealt with or corrected or mitigated in Afghanistan, since we routinely encountered issues while I was there. Which is completely to be expected, since we can never expect the utilities at the caliber of a permanent installation. Also, I don’t see how correcting the engineering on a stairwell to prevent falls amounts to a lofty idea. Most stairwells at Camp Marmal were fine. But I recognize that plenty of other people have differing perspectives on all this, including those who have considerable more experience in overseas bases than I did. And I reference this in my full series of Afghanistan posts.


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