Remembering Our Colleagues

Five years after the cowardly terrorist attacks on our nation, fire fighters across the country continue to mourn the loss of 343 of our colleagues. We will never forget our brave members who died September 11, 2001.

Our task now is to ensure that their legacy is a better prepared country. We must use 9/11 as motivation for improving our nation’s fire service so fire fighters are better equipped to respond to disasters and protect their communities and homeland. And we must use 9/11 as motivation for taking better care of the brave men and women who rush selflessly into harm’s way.

Last week’s news that responders to the 9/11 tragedy continue to suffer adverse health affects serves a dire reminder of the dangers of working on the front lines protecting Americans against terrorist attacks and other hazards. Five years after fire fighters and others rushed to Ground Zero, medical evidence shows they are beginning to pay a heavy price. New York fire fighters struggle just to breathe, living victims of terrorist attacks that continue to claim lives.

The release of the study from the expert medical team at Mt. Sinai Medical Center rightly focused our nation’s attention on those responders at Ground Zero. We must ensure that these men and women continue to receive appropriate medical screening, treatment and compensation for any injuries they suffered.
But while we address the needs of those who responded to the last terrorist attack, we must not forget that similar dangers may await those who respond to the next one. The broader lesson found between the pages of the Mt. Sinai report is that large-scale disasters create the potential for long-term health and environmental hazards.

In one important way, the responders to 9/11 attacks were fortunate. Congress moved quickly to establish a medical monitoring program to track them over a period of years to detect any latent adverse health affects. Last week’s news confirmed the wisdom of that decision.

But Congress has been reluctant to assure that future responders to major disasters will also have access to this invaluable support. During the horrendous California wildfires of 2003, the Senate voted to create a medical monitoring program for the fire fighters on the front lines of that raging inferno. But the Senate amendment was stripped from the bill later in the legislative process.

Similarly, Congress ignored pleas to create a monitoring program for the responders to Katrina. While the EPA and OSHA were warning people to avoid contact with contaminated flood waters, emergency responders waded waist deep into the mire in order to rescue survivors. Despite mounting evidence that they were exposed to an array of dangers, Congress continues to deny them the sort of medical screening that has proved invaluable to those in New York.

Legislation to establish medical monitoring programs following all large-scale disasters is pending before the House and Senate. Versions of the legislation have passed committees in both chambers, but prospects look dim for enactment before the end of the 109th Congress.

The benefits of a long-term medical monitoring program are obvious. Monitoring can determine if responders are at increased risk of developing medical conditions, and that information can save their lives. Monitoring programs are extremely cost effective. By utilizing local medical facilities and resources, the cost to the federal government is minimal.

No one knows what the next disaster will look like, but we do know that wherever it occurs and whatever its source, America’s fire fighters will do what they always do: rush directly into harm’s way to protect their fellow citizens.
Protecting their health is the very least we owe them.