Flexibility is Key to Battling Coronavirus

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Stephen J. Caruso
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

It has long been held that flexibility is the key to air power. For one New York City police officer, Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Tomeo, it’s also the key to winning the fight against COVID-19.

Tomeo is a sergeant with the Critical Response Command, an organization within NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau. He supervises specially trained emergency teams, including active shooter response, force protection services for any of New York City’s major events, and the largest K-9 unit in NY—with dogs capable of explosive trace detection.

As a reservist, Tomeo was a longtime member of the 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and is now assigned to Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command.

The NYPD units Tomeo supervises are highly flexible. As with many other police units in the NYPD, the CRC mission has shifted since the outbreak of Coronavirus in New York City. With nearly all of New York City’s large events cancelled indefinitely, CRC personnel are being deployed to support force protection efforts at key hospitals in the city, where large numbers of Coronavirus patients are being treated. 

Tomeo’s unit is guarding the Javits Center, a convention center on Manhattan’s west side being used as an overflow hospital. Ensuring secure, efficient access for emergency medical personnel is part of this critical response, as the Javits Center plays host to a makeshift intensive care unit actively treating people with severe cases of COVID-19.

The CRC is also providing physical security to the United States Naval Ship Comfort. This security detail is being coordinated as a joint mission with a U.S. Marine Corps security detachment. 

Tomeo says this civilian aid to military security is key, since posse comitatus limitations place some restrictions on the use of firearms by military personnel in homeland operations. The NYPD CRC, on the other hand, can provide a show of force sufficient to ward off potential threats by placing armed officers in key locations.

“Additionally, since many hotels are operating with minimal staffing, there are not enough security personnel to provide physical protection for buildings and guests,” said Tomeo. 

Many current hotel guests in New York City are first responders, doctors and nurses serving in the city’s various hospitals. 

“The CRC is working to ensure that these facilities are well protected,” said Tomeo. “It is even coordinating security for a hotel serving as temporary housing for the Marine security detachment.” 

Tomeo’s Air Force security forces experience and training has enabled him to liaise with his military counterparts during this emergency response.

“Command, control, coordination has always been useful in the civilian world with situations like this,” said Tomeo.

Resiliency is also a key. Tomeo, who served in rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero immediately after 9-11, has seen more than his fair share of death due to the current pandemic.

“It seems like, every day you go into work, and you’re living through a movie,” said Tomeo. “You can see the refrigerator truck loaded with bodies.” 

The rapid shift toward the Coronavirus emergency response has required tremendous flexibility, not only in operations planning but in managing officers and keeping them healthy for duty. To minimize the risk of staff contracting the virus at work, the CRC has taken an innovative approach to tweaking standard routines. Officers have their temperatures taken prior to entering the CRC building, weapons are placed in an ionizer between shifts and clean teams spray vehicles and the building to disinfect surface areas as much as possible.

“We normally do standing roll call, similar to guard mount, in the afternoons,” said Tomeo. “Typically, during this group meeting, officers would gather for intel briefings and inspection but with COVID-19, meeting for roll call is too risky.” 

“We had to stop that three or four weeks ago,” said Tomeo. “Now we don’t have people gather inside the building. They greet me at the door, I say ‘Grab your gun, get your equipment, I’ll meet you at your car.’”

Additional measures his unit has implemented include complete sanitization of vehicles after each use by fogging out the cars with disinfectant—a method borrowed from another police department. 

“We are constantly trying to adapt our methods to safeguard some of the people who are potentially sick,” said Tomeo.

But he realizes that even these precautions will not completely prevent the spread of Coronavirus among his officers. 

“In communities with elevated numbers of cases, some precincts have reported that up to one-third of staff have either tested positive or are awaiting test results,” said Tomeo.

CRC team members require three months of training in heavy weapons and tactics; active shooter scenarios including room entries and building clearing; and explosive and radiological detection. That makes backfilling CRC positions quickly nearly impossible. 

“We’ve had to limit our exposure to the general populace,” said Tomeo. “If one of us got sick, it would spread fast. Guys go to three months of training. They don’t have backfills.”

Given that risk to the CRC’s operational capacity, Tomeo is making every effort to ensure any staff observing possible symptoms are tested and get accurate results before reporting back to work.

But Tomeo’s concern goes deeper than simple operational efficiency. As a 26-year NYPD veteran and representative to the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Tomeo tries to take care of the officers and staff he supervises. 

“We are up to twelve in terms of mortalities in the police department,” said Tomeo. “We are also very worried about the long term effects of COVID-19, such as pulmonary and heart problems.”

Despite the challenges of this unprecedented pandemic, Tomeo and the CRC continue to deploy to areas of the city where their specialized skills are most needed, providing flexible and critical support in the fight against Coronavirus.