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May
15

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 (www.firefightersfund.org) and author of Rescue at Engine 32, a memoir about her work with New York City firefighters after 9/11.)

6 comments

  1. Toni Ioveno says:

    I am the wife of a fireman disabled from 9/11. Our life has not been the same since the horrific events of that day. I sometimes wonder how things would be if that day had never come. Struggling to pay bills and run around to doctor appointments is a regular day for us. Still cannot understand anything I the wife live with constant anxiety and feel the need to rush the next 30 years into 1 week.. I wish there were a place where the wives of our heros could meet. Thank you for all you do!

  2. Martha Holden says:

    Thank you, Jessica, for your work. This moved me to tears, sitting here in peaceful rainy Vermont, far from the actualities of the situation. My vocation is prayer, and it has just been expanded. Thank you

  3. Jim says:

    Ms. Locke,

    You hit the nail on the head. I was an FDNY member who was forced out a few years after 9/11. A mistake that would have been laughed at a few years prior to 9/11 ended my 17 year career. Self medication and self therapy was always the way a fireman coped…it was how we were “broken in”. Prior to 9/11 if you carried a few dead kids out of a burning tenement you hit the local bar after work with the boys to drink away any emotion you may have felt. No counselors, no therapists, didnt tell the wife…we just had each other.

    Now 9/11 happens we are still going to fires and car wrecks during working hours but after work we go down to the pile to dig for our dead friends and whatever other poor SOB was caught down there that morning….my first day off in two months an American Airline jet crashes outside my house in Belle Harbor.I spent that morning with a garden hose attempting to put out a neighbors house. At this point a Psychology student could have dedicated his entire thesis to my state of mind.

    Then we are thrown off the pile by politicians many of our friends still missing. The hero nonsense dies down and the NY Post, NYDaily News and just about every other local media outlet turns on us. Fireman caught DWI…Fireman in bar brawl…what did they expect? The judge was absolutely right…even the bravest can be broken. Many were that day and in the days following but of everything I have scene in both my time in the Marines and my FD career nothing was as disturbing as the complete disregard and lack of compassion shown by the brass for the men they once called brothers. They threw their brothers under the bus in order to appease some politicians political goals. Shame on them all.

    Thank you for remembering those of us who once loved our jobs and were willing to sacrafice everything to help others. God Bless you.

  4. Left Behind says:

    Jessica,

    At the age of 32 I was a New York City firefighter. I had been working for the F.D.N.Y. for 1 year and 7 months. Happy for the first time in life, I found my calling. Helping people in dangerous situations and risking my life to save others was the most gratifying feeling I had ever felt.

    Then came that day. September 11, 2001–the day that changed everything. I was posted at the firehouse, watching T.V. in house watch, thinking about how many of my brothers were going to die as I listened to the department radio, hearing all of the maydays and screaming. The next day I went to what would come to be known as “Ground Zero”. The fires still burning as I crawled through the twisted steel hoping to find someone alive. I couldn’t help but think, “Where did everyone go?” During the next few days the politicians and celebrities would come to the site. They would shake our hands and say that they would never forget what happened. In the following months, the smell of death was strong. I remember one day that I found one body from the waist down. This poor fellow went to work that day with $7 in his wallet. Every time a body part belonging to a firefighter or police officer was found, we would line up on the ramp that went down to the pit. During the month of April 2002, we did this fourteen times, watching a piece of someone with the American flag draged over him being brought out.

    In the beginning of June we were all sent back to our firehouses. We were supposed to go back to our normal routine. I found myself not being able to sleep. I was drinking and self-medicating, not knowing what was wrong with me. I went to the FDNY department psychologist and told them something was wrong. I was told to take two weeks off. All that did was give me more time to drink and self-medicate. After the two weeks, I went back to work. I attended funeral after funeral. I felt guilty about the lack of attendance due to the amount of funerals that were being held. The list of funerals would come through the firehouse each week. I felt guilty that I could only make a few. The thought of why I didn’t die was strong. I went back to the FDNY department counselor. This time I was angry, confused and depressed. My marriage was falling apart, and I was self-medicating just to get through the day. The counselor listened but didn’t hear my cry for help. She thought I was joking and literally said so. She asked me if I was looking for more time off. I got mad at her lack of concern for my mental state and started yelling at her. She looked at her watch and said our time was up and I needed to go.

    Other firefighters started to fall apart with DWI’s, bar fights, and just making bad decisions. What did the Commissioner and Mayor expect? I reach rock bottom, first I am suspended and then I am fired. But between the two I found hope. I was lucky enough to see a pamphlet that was titled, “Are You Suffering from PTSD?” I sought out private doctors for counseling. I found out that I was suffering both mentally and physically. I completed 28 days in a rehab facility. Once released, I continued to go to counseling and began going to AA meetings. I became an active member of AA and started healing. I just celebrated my fourth year in sobriety. I found love and forgiveness in my heart.

    But I was not given a second chance by the F.D.N.Y. Their words of “We will never forget” were false.

  5. Billy Monahan says:

    We need to start the training with new recruits when they come on the job. We all need to watch out for each other. Recognizing a brother in need after a serious incident is extremely important. We are all affected differently by what we see. Some are affected more or less than others and later after the incident is over not just immediately following. The departments need to follow up days weeks and even months following events that affect firefighters. However only we know when a member is truley bothered. We spend a third of our life’s together and it’s important we have each others back in getting help for someone. I as a captain am always watching my guys but someone needs to watch out for me. A probationary fireman should know about how to recognize my pain and what to do about it. Then the department will follow up with help. Peer support groups and training are the best thing our department has done. We fireman would much rather open up to each other initially than some doctor while laying on a couch. I speak from experience. My PTSD started after we returned from Haiti then a 30 year career of memories of death and pain opened up. Life is good because of the brothers around me, our peer support program and the department taking a pro active role in our mental health and well being. Cheers Willie. Your eternal brother Billy Monahan

  6. Dave C says:

    WOW and I thought I was alone Jim thank you for ur response I to was forced out after 9/11 I remember taking a test then having Dr. Prezant look at his paper and just with out regard say “your firefighting days are over” wait what did he just say ? As a volly since 17 then making it to the FDNY after a 4 year wait for the best job in the world and working in the Bronx and having the bldgs collapse around me on that day. it hit me like a ton of bricks. how did i cope yes i hit the bars and alcohol to self cope cuz thats what we did. years years later still self medicating if it wasnt for my family who told me to seek help who knows what were i would be prolly a statistic. and I did called the csu no answer called and called it wasnt till i went ballistic on some poor girl who was answering the phone did i get a phone call back then to be told oh wait will have to find someone in ur area. 1 week later i get an appt. I still see her she is great however she isnt a physcologist !! And she has cried after ive told my story. It seems that just because its 11 years ago that nobody cares anymore. people cannot understand what keeping things inside ur head because you were put on a pedistle for years and then its pulled out or the daily reminders of that day and reading that another hero has died from 9/11 related illness does to you. I strive to be better but its an uphill battle when you read things like this. ONLY US understand this. Thank you for article but their is alot more guys who r in need of help and “Not Forgotten”

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