Environmental Drill in the Darkness

Check-in. New York. March 3, 2016.

Participants in the city’s Environmental Sampling Exercise arrive at the New York Public Health Laboratory for check-in. New York, 2016.

 At 10 p.m. on Friday night, members of the  New York Police Department, Fire   Department, Port Authority, Metropolitan  Transportation Authority, Environmental  Protection Agency, and FBI assembled at  the New York Public Health Laboratory on  First Avenue to start what the city called  “an environmental sampling exercise.”

 Jeremy House, deputy press secretary for  the Department of Health, said the drill  was one of especially large magnitude, intended as a preparation in the event of airborne biohazards. But, he could not say more, he said, due to “sensitive material.”

The exercise began after Grand Central Station shut down for the night. Then the station was closed to the press and public until 6 a.m. Subway commuters were not affected. The mood at check-in at the beginning of the night was normal and relaxed.

“Is this the donut line?” a cop jokingly asked one of his colleagues as he approached the check-in line, where everyone received i.d. role tags with nouns like “player” and “evaluator.”

Louis Cook from IMS Health, a technology and information services company for the healthcare industry, braced for the long night ahead with some air outside. Cook, who worked at numerous city agencies before joining IMS Health a year ago, said he was an “evaluator,” meaning he would assess the “players” as they ran through the exercise, making sure they performed every procedure perfectly so nothing could challenge them legally.

“If someone says the chain of custody was messed up, they could knock that out of evidence and whoever they’re trying to prosecute could get away with it,” said Cook. “Also it’s critical because you don’t want to contaminate [evidence]. Say you got something contaminated, you would have to go back and do it – if you can do it.”

He added that these kind of exercises are fairly routine, but people don’t always hear about them because onlookers and media could be disruptive to the exercises and bad people could do bad things with the information.

According to Cook, the exercise was paid for with grant and tax dollars and organized by ICF International, a Virginia-based consulting firm which provides consulting and technology services to government and commercial companies. The firm would also review the entire exercise afterwards.