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In Search of Restitution: 9/11 responders look to litigation, medical monitoring, legislation By Harold Schapelhouman
Recently, someone from the news media contacted me to see if I was involved with litigation surrounding the 2001 World Trade Center (WTC) response. Like many responders, I had been approached by a group of attorneys who were planning to file a lawsuit to benefit those who had responded and worked at the site.
And like many responders (including more than 70 percent of our team members), I became ill after 9/11. It was clear almost immediately after returning home that something was very wrong. In 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, I also became ill with a persistent cough related to the concrete dust that lasted for more than a month. Emotionally, it took 5 years to put that incident behind me—just in time for the WTC disaster.
No one responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks thinking that it could affect their health for years to come, but for many it did. But responders whose health has been affected can now participate in Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. Photo courtesy FEMA
California USAR Task Force 3 works to cut through steel in the aftermath of 9/11. Photo courtesy FEMA
In our litigious society, it would’ve been very easy for me to join in on the WTC lawsuit, but it wasn’t the right decision for me. In our profession, we live by a code that professes honor, duty, service and sacrifice. I considered it an honor to respond to the WTC and serve those in need.
Our team also responded to New York well aware of the many health risks and challenges ahead of us, so it would be disingenuous of me to accept the risks of my decision to not only participate on a national urban search and rescue (USAR) response team, but to accept a mission to New York City and then agree to participate in a lawsuit related to long-term health effects from that deployment.
That said, I understand how others, especially those who responded in the initial phases of the event or who became seriously ill afterward, would choose that option.Lingering Frustrations
Does the fact that we understood what we were getting ourselves into excuse the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House from purposely withholding important air-quality and health information from the public and the responders? I believe the answer is yes and no. I can understand not telling the public everything when the country is under attack, but I’ll never understand why air-quality information was withheld from responders working at the site.
I’ll also never forgive the federal government and its bean counters for denying our team’s reimbursement request after we spent thousands of dollars on enhanced respiratory equipment for our team members prior to our response to the WTC. The 9/11 attacks were most likely this century’s worst urban disaster, so it seems almost unbelievable that our government wouldn’t assist us, but it didn’t. Note:
On the positive side, as a result of 9/11, significant improvements have been made to the federal urban search and rescue (USAR) equipment list and cache related to respiratory, monitoring and decontamination equipment.WTC Medical Monitoring & Treatment Program
What I can support and have continued to participate in has been the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. I’ve also encouraged our team members who responded to participate in this program, but some have expressed their desire to move on and not participate, while others have said that they didn’t want to become “lab rats.” The broader goal of the registry is to honor those who were there and monitor how they’re doing physically.
As of Sept. 30, 2009, 55,331 responders throughout the United States have met the eligibility criteria and have enrolled on the rosters for the program. Most responders reside within the greater New York/New Jersey metropolitan vicinity, but 4,491 enrolled responders, like me, reside elsewhere in the United States. Of the 55,331 responders, 44,754 have received an initial monitoring examination.H.R. 847
In an effort to maintain and continue the monitoring program and other programs like it, Congress is considering H.R. 847, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009. The President’s FY 2011 budget requests $150 million to continue medical monitoring programs, but H.R. 847 would turn all current monitoring programs into entitlement programs, which would make them permanent and not subject to annual appropriations.
The bill requires that the City of New York contribute 10 percent of the costs of the program, not to exceed $500 million over 10 years. The bill would also reopen the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund for people who became ill or suffered losses after the fund’s original closure date of Dec. 22, 2003. Further, the bill would provide liability protections for WTC contractors and the City of New York.Conclusion
No one responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks thinking that it could affect their health for years to come, but for many it did. Participating in litigation, the medical monitoring program or both can be very personal and conflicting decisions to make, especially if one’s health has been seriously affected.
As we approach the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York City, I am hopeful that H.R. 847 will be voted into law so that the long-term health needs of so many responders can be appropriately monitored and treated. For many, their primary sacrifice has been their health, but I’m sure that if you asked most of them whether they’d do it all over again, they wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.Harold Schapelhouman is a 28-year veteran firefighter with the Menlo Park (Calif.) Fire Protection District. At the start of 2007, he became the first internally selected fire chief in 21 years for his organization. Previously, he was the division chief in charge of special operations, which includes all district specialized preparedness efforts, the local and state water rescue program, and the local, state and National Urban Search and Rescue Program (USAR).
Schapelhouman was the task force leader in charge of California Task Force 3, one of the eight California USAR teams and one of the 28 federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS/FEMA) teams.
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