Addressing lingering issues 9/11 first responders face

SHUAN SIM | September 07, 2021

Oren Barzilay, president of the labor union for the city Fire Department’s emergency medical services, Local 2507, has addressed many disasters since he joined the force in 1995, most notably the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, improvements have been made to the technology and equipment that allow EMS to save lives. But despite first responders being widely lauded as heroes, it took decades for EMS workers to receive health benefits tied to the tragedy, Barzilay said. Combined with the low wages still being paid to EMS workers and the difficulty in securing funding for upgrades, he said, he worries that recruitment and retainment will continue to be issues for the agency, which has been on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How many 9/11 first responders remain in EMS?

There are maybe a few hundred of us. The majority have retired. Some have left or resigned for other careers.

Twenty years later, how are they feeling?

We don’t talk about it as much as we used to years ago. But there’s a lot of resentment still. It took almost 20 years for legislation to take care of us who became ill. Many of us jumped in and helped the city and others out, but when it came to the city and government helping us out when we became sick, there was no relief until recently. It grows doubts in people’s mind about jumping in to help out the next time a big disaster hits.

How has EMS changed since 9/11 in terms of disaster preparedness?

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Equipment- and training-wise, there have been upgrades. Members have now been trained in hazmat materials and gotten confined-space training, and specialized rescue paramedic teams have been formed. The city has provided new “bunker gear” with better capabilities.

What could be better?

The equipment and technology are good, but what’s lacking is maintenance and replacement. The city is working on replacing expensive bunker gear that had been issued about 10 years ago, but that funding hasn’t been secured. Another example is our communication technology has improved, making us more interoperable with any city agency. But the repeater system [that passes on the signals] hasn’t been upgraded, and for some reason we’re still having issues communicating with dispatch. We’ve had incidences where teams in Staten Island couldn’t communicate with dispatch. A solution would be installing more repeaters, but putting those towers up is complicated. They emit radiation, and communities don’t want those in their backyard.

Has that impeded EMS’s ability to address big crises?

Things have been better in recent years, and we’ve learned to adapt. But addressing disasters is more than just equipment. It’s about valuing first responders so that they will hold nothing back to rise to the situation. What we saw on 9/11, we’re seeing a repeat with Covid-19. Covid exemplified that we will always do our best to help our citizens, but now many who have gotten sick or have long-term illness are not compensated by worker’s compensation. EMS was the only unit allowed to go into people’s homes during Covid when everyone else was told to stand back. We only just finished our negotiations with the city on the latest contract, but our starting salary is still $39,000—that’s still poverty wage. People are not going to want to stay with such conditions, and our resources are stretched so thin. That’ll leave us vulnerable for future crises.

What can resolve that?

Revisiting our wages would be a good first step. But more importantly, the force needs to feel the city is listening to their needs. We would like to be acknowledged for the work we do and the risks we take. And we’re not talking about a parade. It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for the government to acknowledge the risks we took for 9/11, and I hope it doesn’t take that long for what we risked for Covid.