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Tracking the Health of Firefighters
By Terence J. Kivlan, Staten Island Advance, September 25, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Estimating that 700 firefighters may be permanently disabled, Fire Department medical chief Dr. Kerry Kelly yesterday urged approval of federal funding for long-term health tracking of firefighters suffering from Sept. 11-related illnesses. "What we are looking to do is monitor these people beyond retirement on the premise that they have been in a war," said Dr. Kelly, testifying before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

An estimated 500 firefighters, many of whom worked in the recovery and clean-up effort at Ground Zero, suffer from disabling respiratory diseases. The careers of another 100 to 200 may have been ended by severe emotional and psychological trauma, she told senators. "Since the attack our members have ... struggled with the emotional consequences of losing colleagues, near-death experiences and digging through tons of rubble to find those who perished," Dr. Kelly said. "The emotional toll has been great."


The Grymes Hill resident later said she didn't know how many Staten Island firefighters were among the group she described. "I don't have figures like that," she said.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, a member of the committee, is sponsoring legislation allocating $90 million for medical monitoring programs around the country. About $25 million would be earmarked for the city. At the hearing, Mrs. Clinton sparred briefly on the tracking issue with Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who reiterated the Bush administration position that $9 million was already available to do medical checks on Ground Zero workers.

"I don't know of any first responder in New York City who has not received the medical care ... and tests they have asked for," Allbaugh said.

But Mrs. Clinton countered that more funding was needed to conduct follow-up tests and provide future treatment. "We are losing literally hundreds of our firefighters for health reasons, as well as for stress," she said.

On Sept. 11, over 240 firefighters and emergency technicians sought needed medical attention in emergency rooms, and more than 28 remain hospitalized with life-threatening inhalation and trauma-related injuries. After they collapsed, "the pulverized towers sent up a caustic cloud of black smoke and choking debris showering down on the surviving workers, blanketing our members," Dr. Kelly testified. "Every breath was made difficult as the air became thickened with particulate matter."

As the rescue effort progressed at Ground Zero, the incidence of firefighters going on medical leave stabilized and declined. It then began growing rapidly again as more workers began suffering from severe respiratory problems, Dr. Kelly said. In the months after Sept. 11, almost 1,900 firefighters had to take sick leave for respiratory symptoms. Over 332 were out for a month or longer, and more than half have yet to return to their duties, she said.


In addition, over 3,000 firefighters have been evaluated for stress, grief and bereavement as well as "post-traumatic symptoms, and 250 remain on leave with these problems," she added. And the FDNY faces added depletion of veteran personnel because of impending retirements. "One year after the attack, the Fire Department of New York continues to rebuild and recover, forever changed by the events of Sept. 11," Dr. Kelly said. "It has been a difficult year."

Also testifying was Christine Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who defended her agency's response to Sept. 11. The EPA activated its New York emergency response team as soon as the first hijacked plane hit, she said. "While there is always room for improvement, the people of my agency can be proud of the work they put in," Ms. Whitman said. Terence Kivlan is the Washington Bureau reporter for the Staten Island Advance. He may be reached at

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