For most of us, forgetting 9/11 simply isn’t an option. Those who lost loved ones live with it every day. The rest of us reflect upon it periodically. All of us are thinking about it now as we hit the 20-year anniversary of those attacks. As with every firefighter line of duty death, the key is to remember their sacrifice, learn all the lessons the event offers and be diligent to prevent other firefighters from losing their lives in the same way.
In addition to the responders who died after the initial attacks in 2001, thousands more have suffered prolonged and profound illnesses from their exposures to toxins during the rescue and recovery phases. In fact, more than 200 FDNY firefighters and more than 240 NYPD officers have already died. We can no more forget them than we can those who died on Sept. 11.
And when you thought the prognosis couldn’t get worse, USA Today ran a story in May detailing the heightened risks Covid-19 presents those suffering with 9/11-related illnesses. At least five FDNY 9/11 survivors have died from Covid-19 in 2020.
The lesson we can take from those who did suffer for their efforts after the event is that building collapses are often hazmat incidents.
According to the Never Forget Project, dust from the collapsed Twin Towers contained more than 2,500 contaminants. “When the planes crashed into the towers, 24,000 gallons of jet fuel ignited a fire that spread to 100,000 tons of organic debris and 230,000 gallons of transformer, heating and diesel oils in the buildings, setting off a giant toxic plume of soot and dust from pulverized building materials, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report,” the Project’s site says. Rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero, were exposed to chemicals like asbestos, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, crystalline silica and other metals and particulates.
The 9/11 attacks were a “once in a lifetime” event that, hopefully, we’ll not experience again. Yet other buildings collapse and other responders turn out. Just this past summer, first responders spent four weeks sifting through debris from the Surfside, Fla., condominium collapse that killed 97 people.
Buildings don’t often collapse, and when they do, our first thoughts are not about protecting our own long-term health and wellness. But incorporating these precautionary measures into your response plans can go a long way toward keeping firefighters healthy years after the rubble has been cleared.
Monitor the air throughout the entire operation. Have stationary monitors in place as well has mobile units to get into the work areas. Also, have hazmat teams train on this activity and add problem-solving wrinkles by elevating readings at different times of the evolution.
Wear full protective equipment including breathing apparatus. As with overhauling after a fire, protecting the airways is critical. Start with full SCBA and scale it back only when monitoring data shows it is safe to do so. Protect the skin, eyes and other ports of entry where contaminants can be absorbed into the body.
Establish on-site decontamination to clean responders prior to them leaving the scene. Have a means to safely contain the PPE they are wearing on scene so that contaminants are not transported back to the firehouse or firefighters’ homes. Have a personal hygiene policy for responders returning from scene, and enforce it.
Assume the worst. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, CDC said the dust from the Twin Towers would not cause any lasting harm to rescue and recovery workers. That wasn’t the case. Erring on the side of caution will help protect firefighters from what’s not yet known.
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