Last month, it was reported that Robert Alexander, a New York city police officer who was a first responder to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC), died of cancer-related issues to his service at Ground Zero.
His death followed that of his father, Raymond Alexander, a New York City firefighter and likewise an emergency first responder to the 9-11 attack, who passed nine months before.
There are hundreds of such stories emanating from the experiences of these first responders, whose bravery and commitment to others often led to medical and mental trauma.
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Today, there are more than 7,000 people enrolled in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides monitoring and treatment to emergency responders, workers, and volunteers. Of that figure, more than 6,000 were first responders at the WTC.
Though exposed to cancer-causing toxic dust and other risks during the rescue of survivors and recovery of victims, it took a class-action lawsuit and direct evidence from autopsies of departed first-responders for federal and state action to occur.
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At the federal level, the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act was passed in 2010, named after a NYC police detective who died in 2006 of respiratory disease linked to his first-responder role on 9-11. However, it took immense lobbying for the law to be reauthorized in 2015.
At the state level, a 2007 lawsuit seeking death benefits for a NYC policeman who was a first responder took five years to decide, albeit ultimately in favor of the first responder’s family. Not coincidentally, both national and state officials were criticized in the post-9/11 period for downplaying the health dangers faced by first responders.
In addition to the medical ailments caused by exposure to Ground Zero, emergency first responders were not immune from psychological effects. Two studies probing the impact of the 9-11 attack found that witnessing the attack was related to subsequent cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
Currently, the process of protest, lawsuit, reaction, and recognition is repeating itself for volunteers who rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks, as well as for those who were living or going to school in the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero.
According to one military officer who assisted after the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon, “you never recover completely,” a sentiment surely shared by most emergency first responders. Too, the warning to avoid complacency has led to marked improvements in some facets of emergency first responders’ resources, such as their communications systems.
The ever-present drills, once performed infrequently and with less intensity, are a constant reminder of the legacy of September 11, 2001, but so too is the heightened respect afforded those who rush into trouble to save those seeking to escape it.
Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on foreign policy, intelligence, and national security issues.
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