City and Federal agencies may have borne some responsibility or at least culpability for protecting the health of Ground Zero Workers. But certainly not all of it. Our ability to learn from this incident and get better at a response will in no small degree depend on some brutal honesty about shared responsibility. Nonetheless, there's no excuse for government to not take care of Workers now.
Workers were told repeatedly how important it was to wear breathing protection equipment. Obviously, neither I nor anyone else can say for sure that all agencies and departments properly impressed this upon their personnel. And in the first few days, it might be true that not enough quality respirator equipment was available. Though days later, there were boxes full of serviceable equipment available for anyone who wanted to draw from it. (At least there were at a Chelsea Piers staging area.) And down at the so-called Pile, many workers simply were not wearing their gear even though they had it. Watch footage from almost any news source. You'll even see large numbers of Workers with gear hung around their necks; but not over their faces.
There's some good reasons why. Those reasons seem to pale in comparison to the consequences though. The filters can clog, (though if this happens, one would think that's a clear sign as to how necessary the units are), they're uncomfortable for extended periods and most workers are not used to wearing such gear for extended periods, they make it difficult to communicate, and possibly other reasons. Obviously, non Fire/EMS personnel were likely wholly unfamiliar with such equipment.
In any case, it's going to be all but pointless for any reason other than lawsuits to try to pin some kind of general blame on a particular agency or individual. There were plenty of mistakes to go around and a lot of them had to do with what's been called "failure of imagination" which might less colorfully just be called lack of reasonable insight. Which is always easy to say in hindsight. The blame game as it's playing out now, however, is radically non-productive. It risks making people revert to defensive form rather than confront hard issues to craft better policies and procedures.
So Could Official Agencies Have Done More?
Of course. Clearly. And some did. The Sunday, September 10th 2006 episode of 60 minutes pointed out that at the Pentagon site, Workers were required to wear some form of respirator or they were pulled from the site. While this may or may not have been adhered to 100%, again look at historical news footage. What do you see? In New York City no such discipline was imposed.
Still, as to blame for such a thing it's hard to point a definitive finger. Volunteers were streaming in from every angle, a good chunk of the New York Fire Department's elite and sepcial rescue unit teams had been wiped out and a proper primary concern was to protect against additional events. And while the largest event of its type ever to be seen in world history unfolded, the day-to-day needs of emergency services in one of the world's largest cities still needed service. The following is an arguable point, and is the crux of a great many ongoing arguments, but can any individual or agency really be held responsible for a sub-standard response to an event no one, NO ONE had ever fully anticipated or planned for? Personally I don't think so. Now things are different. Should something of this sort happen again - and this is not at all unlikely given what we know now - we collectively should have every expectation that the same errors won't be made.
But What About Now... Who Should Pay?
However it came to pass, Government and agencies which have gathered funds in support of 9/11 survivors need to take care of medical costs of all such Workers. Any High School statistics student can tell you that there's no question the 9/11 Workers' illnesses are linked to the event. That same basic level of understanding can tell you that some percentage of those 9/11 workers suffering from certain illnesses may have developed them anyway. We need to ignore that. The complexities of sorting out who in particular suffers due to 9/11 versus other causes would be all but impossible.
The bottom line is that there's a lot of people who've gotten sick or are still getting sick as a direct result of their having honorably heeded a call to duty. That in some cases they weren't trained or informed as well as they otherwise might have been has to be thought of as irrelevant. If the general public expects professionals and volunteers to put themselves at risk for the sake of the collective good, that that public - though its government - must reciprocate when necessary. And right now, it's necessary.
I'm among the lucky ones. My time there was short. And the team I went with was fully briefed and equipped. We wore our respirator equipment when down in the bad areas. So far, no problems. The ones that weren't so lucky, or even made mistakes in terms of equipment usage, need to be taken care of. It doesn't matter specifically how this has all come to pass at this point. Just that these folks are properly taken care of. It's a very simple moral responsibility.
The author of this post, Scott Germaise, is your average everyday businessperson. Who also happens to be a New York State EMT who has worked in volunteer emergency services for over 20 years. He is a former President of a community volunteer rescue squad and participated in Rockland County's support response to the New York City's needs during the 9/11 World Trade Center destruction. The opinions offered here, such as they are - agree or disagree - are based on this perspective.