No Second Chance for 9/11 FDNY Firefighters

9/11 FDNY firefighters suffering respiratory problems, post traumatic stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression are being terminated on the charge of substance abuse, leaving them without pensions or health care.

An investigation into the treatment they were offered revealed a woefully inadequate response to the trauma they suffered. Left to cope for themselves, these firefighters were self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

In 2004, FDNY Commissioner Scoppetta (now-ex) implemented a Zero Tolerance Policy. Although the Commissioner was warned by the Oklahoma City Crisis Team there would be a major “spike” in substance abuse from such a traumatic event within this time frame, his policy ignored the underlying medical problem of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder within the ranks. Many firefighters, failing drug tests, were confronted and given the “choice” to quit quietly in order to avoid public humiliation. There was no opportunity to be rehabilitated back into the fire department. Those who chose to fight the charges found themselves brutally prosecuted in hearings with no jury and a judge with no power. The Commissioner had the final word on all cases brought before him.

The following is an open letter to FDNY Commissioner Cassano:

Dear Commissioner Cassano:

I am writing concerning the terminations of FDNY firefighters who served on and after September 11, 2001. I understand these men were “self medicating” with alcohol or drugs, and were charged with substance abuse under the Zero Tolerance policy.

Although there is a need for such a policy, it seems, given the stress of firefighting, as well as the extreme traumatic nature of 9/11 and the failure by the fire department to address the medical needs of its firefighters, mitigating circumstances exist that call for compassion and an opportunity to rehabilitate.

Research into the FDNY Counselling Services Unit (CSU) and the circumstances surrounding the current terminations of FDNY firefighters turned up the following:

Graduate student interns were brought in to counsel FDNY veterans. Why weren’t experienced, top level mental health professionals provided, knowing the unique and extreme massive trauma these first responders had been subjected to? Graduate students would not have the credentials or the experience to recognize and diagnose post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, firefighters relaying their experiences ended up traumatizing the counsellors, who broke down into tears (and had to be comforted by the firefighters.)

Nonetheless, I understand that for some the therapeutic relationship worked; however, in 6 months the internship was over, and the firefighter would be forced to start over with someone else. This goes against all the basic fundamentals of a therapeutic relationship. Using interns is inhumane, given what these men went through.

Another issue that came up repeatedly is confidentiality of medical records. There was a general acknowledgement from all firefighters I interviewed that none could get counselling through the CSU that would remain confidential. And to back it up, there is documented loss of medical records in the legal papers of terminated members. The Counselling Unit is located over a firehouse. With the inherent stigma around counselling as a “weakness” in the FDNY, how does this location support firefighters seeking counselling?

What must also be brought under scrutiny is how the FDNY treats these first responders who are diagnosed with PTSD and are unable to work in the firehouse. I learned a firefighter who suffers from PTSD was given a light duty position answering the suicide hotlines by himself from midnight to 8 a.m. for 6 months. Another firefighter with the same diagnosis was given a position working in the press office, where he was forced to watch 9/11 scenes replayed endlessly on television. This is appalling.

A CSU counsellor informed me recently that the suicide rate is “off the charts for FDNY”. There were 10 suicides in the last two years, all 9/11 related. In 2004 a firefighter was declared fit for duty by the FDNY medical dept. and committed suicide the next day. No one will give me the actual statistics for all the suicides. In addition, according to the World Trade Center Fatalities report, 12 firefighters have died from accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs from 2001 to 2008.

All of the termination cases I have been able to review show men with flawless, unblemished records of service prior to 9/11. Each case shows how, after 9/11, these men tried to hold it together by drinking or drugs. These men approached the Counselling Unit and were told to “take a few weeks off.” A firefighter asked to see a psychiatrist and was refused. Traumatic events several years after 9/11, such as the death of a parent, caused them to “spiral out of control” and seek an escape from their pain through drugs or alcohol. Given that a recent termination hearing resulted in a harsh judicial rebuke of the CSU’s failure to provide adequate treatment, (and the firefighter was still terminated in spite of this) one has to wonder what a thorough investigation might reveal.

Currently, a 25 year veteran firefighter with an outstanding record is fighting for his pension after one charge of substance abuse. The City of New York is determined to take his benefits away from him on appeal, although the lower court ruled it too harsh a penalty after 25 years of service to the city. Why are they putting this man through this process, after all he has endured? This is worse than 9/11, to be betrayed by the city he loyally served.

Terminating firefighters for substance abuse after 9/11 is like expelling students from Virginia Tech who suffer from PTSD after seeing their classmates shot and killed. I believe having the World Trade Center fall down around you–losing as many as 50 close friends in one day–working in the toxic dust and witnessing gruesome human carnage–going to over 100 funerals–doing public relations for the City of New York–becoming sick from respiratory illness, anxiety, acid reflux, sleeplessness, depression and post traumatic stress disorder –and treated by a medical department that was not qualified or prepared–are mitigating circumstances, and should be met with compassion. As one judge stated in her recommendation for leniency, “Even the ‘bravest’ can be broken.”

These firefighters inspired us in our darkest days with their courage. Terminating them without health care or pensions does not punish them; it destroys them. Is this to be our legacy on the tenth anniversary of September 11?

(Please call Commissioner Cassano (718-999-2004) and Fire Chief Kilduff (718-999-2010) and respectfully give them your opinion on this matter. The commissioner has acknowledged receipt of this information.}

(Jessica Locke is Executive Director of the Firefighters Fund ( and author of Rescue at Engine 32, a memoir about her work with New York City firefighters after 9/11.)

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