‘This is a siege’: Inside the NYPD depot at the heart of New York’s coronavirus fight
Before the coronavirus pandemic, a trip to the New York Police Department’s quartermaster section promised all the excitement of a visit to Home Depot.
The three-story brick building, tucked between the Grand Central Parkway and a cemetery in Queens, is the department’s central warehouse for pens, legal pads, paper towels, American flags and the other supplies of everyday police office work.
COVID-19 has transformed it into the first line of defense for a city that has come to feel like a war zone.
New York is the epicenter of the pandemic, with a death toll that grows by hundreds each day and now exceeds 15,000, more than any other city in the world.
The NYPD, a force of 55,000 essential workers whose duties often expose them to the virus, has been hit hard, suffering nearly 4,500 infections and 31 deaths.
The quartermaster now serves as the department’s distribution center for stocks of personal protective equipment.
Once a weekday shop open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., it now runs 24-7. Vans and trucks pull up to the loading dock at all hours.
Officers in masks, wanting to memorialize the otherworldly atmosphere they now operate in, sometimes photograph one another after collecting their orders. Signs, tape and orange traffic cones remind them to keep their distance from the 39 people who work there.
The trauma the pandemic has wrought on the city can be measured in the sheer volume of the items that have been distributed: 1.5 million surgical masks, 1.2 million gloves and 400,000 disinfectant wipes.
A shipment of 528,000 surgical masks recently arrived. Supplies are stacked everywhere, turning parts of the 101,000-square-foot interior into a maze.
Hand sanitizer and disinfectant arrive in 55-gallon drums, each weighing 454 pounds. During the nighttime hours, the officers on duty form an assembly line to repackage it into handheld spray bottles.
More than 10,000 bottles have been distributed to officers who work out of the department’s 30 bureaus and 650 subcommands.
The quartermaster section is run by Deputy Inspector Ian Syversen, a 28-year veteran of the force.
Neatly dressed in a vest and blue tie, he could easily fit in on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. When an emergency hits, he has to make decisions as quickly as a commodities trader.
Syversen, 54, has been fielding calls from would-be entrepreneurs offering masks, gloves, disinfectant and other materials. He can recite the various pitches he receives — a friend or an uncle or a cousin is on the ground in China and can get materials to the department in a week.
The conversations usually stop when the potential vendor asks for money upfront.
“We don’t pay upfront, so it’s: ‘Thank you very much, I’ll keep it mind,’” Syversen said.
The hustlers are outnumbered by the reliable contacts the department has cultivated and relied on over the years.
“People are typically not taking advantage of you during these times,” Syversen said. “At the back end, I’m going to remember.”
When a trusted small vendor in upstate New York called after receiving a supply of chlorine and disposable gloves, Syversen immediately recognized the offer as a good deal and sent four trucks before he even hung up the phone.
“It was a slight markup but not what everybody has been asking,” he said. “That guy goes on the ‘board of love.’”
So did a company that passed along a lead on how DuPont had an overrun on its Tyvek suits used to handle situations involving hazardous materials.
“They can only go to hospitals; however, because we’re the NYPD, they were allowed to come through,” Syversen said. “Once they confirmed they were coming to me, they shipped me 34,000.”
The experience of the Sept. 11 attack on the city left the NYPD prepared when it came to stocks of personal protective equipment, thanks to its investment in a CBRN unit — the initials stand for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear — in anticipation of more man-made disasters.
The unit’s facility is in an undisclosed location that Syversen calls “Secret Squirrel.” Before the pandemic hit, it was stocked with 500,000 masks.
The first batches of masks went to department members who directly interacted with the public.
Emergency call takers were next in line as their specialized training makes them difficult to replace if they become ill.
As the virus spread, the parameters of who needed masks and other supplies kept expanding, which required the department to look for more sources.
“Everything was changing every day,” said Kristine Ryan, deputy commissioner of management and budget for the NYPD. “There was no playbook that said in this situation a person is going to wear 10 gloves. Or two gloves. You just don’t know.”
Ryan’s staff tracks the flow of supplies, making sure every precinct gets what it needs. If the quartermaster section doesn’t hear from a unit, it will check in.
The annual city budget provides $500 million for NYPD supplies. But in emergencies, funding also comes through philanthropy.
The New York City Police Foundation — which was formed in 1971 to help purchase ballistic vests for officers back when armed criminals were their biggest threat — has provided 500,000 masks, 200,000 gloves, 150,000 packets of hand sanitizer and more than 100 hotel rooms for officers who can’t risk spreading the virus to family members with health conditions that would increase their risk of death.
Stephen Meringoff, a managing partner in a commercial real estate and development firm, recently made a cash donation.
“These are men and women who run into a building where there are shots fired,” he said. “Those people deserving of our wholehearted support no matter what it takes and especially in a time like this.”
Syversen can prepare for crisis, but he cannot always predict what the department will need.
“Every disaster comes with its own set of unique circumstances,” he said, using Superstorm Sandy of 2012 to make his point.
“I didn’t need any of this except for chlorine to stop the fungus growth,” he said. “I needed carpet driers and dehumidifiers. Because the cleanup and the aftermath was the problem.
“That’s an event. You have an aftermath. This is a siege. This is a long-term event. You need protective gear.”
Syversen proudly points out that none of the personnel at the section have come down with COVID-19, an achievement considering the number of people who pass through each day.
Strict safety protocols — such as power-washing the warehouse floors each night with chlorine — seem to have paid off.
Keeping everyone safe has also required some educating.
“Not a lot of people know this surgical mask has a lot of wire in it,” Syversen said. “I’ve seen too many people wear them upside down and inside out. If you’re not in the healthcare industry, you really don’t know that.”
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