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Trainer’s Corner: September 2011

Sept. 11, 2001, is a date most people will never forget. Thousands of innocent lives were lost that day, and millions more were changed forever.

September 7, 2011
By Ed Brouwer

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Sept. 11, 2001, is a date most people will never forget. Thousands of innocent lives were lost that day, and millions more were changed forever. We remember the awful sight of victims falling from the towers, and then the collapse of the south tower followed shortly thereafter by the north. We remember seeing faces covered with dust and tears. We remember firefighters, police officers and port authority officers rushing up into the World Trade Center (WTC) towers while civilians ran down stairs.

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The ringing of PASS alarms on 9-11 was a signal to those watching that so many FDNY firefighters had died. Photo by Laura King


 

The following timeline summarizes the crashes and collapses:

  • 8:46 a.m. – Flight 11 crashes into the WTC north tower
  • 9:03 a.m. – Flight 175 crashes into the south WTC tower
  • 9:59 a.m. – The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses
  • 10:28 a.m. – The World Trade Center north tower collapses
  • 5:20 p.m. – Building 7 (47-storey skyscraper) of the World Trade Center collapses

We may never know the exact number of people who died on 9-11, but we know that the figure is very close to 3,000, including 25 Canadians. Many more have died indirectly. But we do know that 343 firefighters lost their lives in the Twin Towers on 9-11, and that another 300 were placed on leave for respiratory problems by 2002. A total of 411 emergency workers who responded to the scene died as they attempted to rescue people and fight fires. What many don’t know is that firefighters are still dying from 9-11-related issues.

Jim Ryan survived the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. What he and his family didn’t realize is that his survival would be cut short eight years later. Ryan answered the call of duty on 9-11, and then went beyond, returning to the blasted ground for months. Early on Christmas morning 2009, the firefighter’s lungs finally overfilled with fluids, the side-effects of pancreatic cancer inflicted on him by the toxic dust he swallowed in hundreds of hours at Ground Zero.

Hundreds of firefighters and other Ground Zero workers have died of cancer since the attack on the World Trade Center, according to New York state health officials. Many developed respiratory problems that came to be known as the World Trade Center cough, which was little understood immediately after the attacks but has become a chief concern of health experts and advocates. Health experts have also found that lung ailments tended to be worst among those who arrived first at the site.

The World Trade Center cough appears to be permanent. A sweeping study of firefighters and EMT workers who inhaled toxic Ground Zero dust found that their lungs have unexpectedly failed to recover since the 2001 disaster.

“We demonstrated dramatic decline in lung function, mostly in the first six months after 9-11, and these declines persisted with little or no meaningful recovery over the next 6.5 years,” Dr. David Prezant, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, told the New York Daily News.

There are also reported suicides among 9-11 survivors. One firefighter was on the scene at the World Trade Center when both towers collapsed. A friend told the Daily News that on 9-11 the firefighter “felt powerless. People needed help and he was a firefighter and he couldn’t help them.” Six years later – after that firefighter had been promoted to lieutenant – two of his firefighters were killed in the Deutsche Bank blaze. The building, which was being knocked down, caught fire in August 2007. Asbestos injured 115 firefighters and killed Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino. The weight of all this was too much for this retired firefighter, who had served 25 years in the FDNY.

Many people have stated that the images of 9-11 have been ingrained into their minds. For me, the memory of that day is a sound rather than an image which, even today, arrests my attention. That sound was heard during a very short video clip showing a doctor hiding behind a parked vehicle as the south tower collapsed. As the rumbling subsided, and the thick dust began to settle, the doctor stood up and said something about helping others, and then there was a complete and eerie silence. Then I heard it – the high-pitched alarm of a Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) device. Not one, but 10, then 20 and then, it seemed, hundreds. I feel no shame in telling you that I broke into tears.

A PASS device is, in effect, a small motion detector. Most PASS devices are powered by battery and are easily activated while wearing gloves. The PASS device senses the firefighter’s motion. Inactivity for 30 seconds causes the device to send a pre-alert chirp. A firefighter who has simply been motionless for a time but is otherwise safe will be able to move slightly and reset the activation timer before a false activation occurs. If the firefighter fails to move, the device will go into full alarm mode, emitting a high-pitched audible alarm (95 decibels or more). The PASS device can also be activated manually in an emergency, such as when a firefighter is lost or trapped.

While older PASS devices required manual arming by firefighters prior to entering a dangerous environment, the current application integrates the PASS device into the SCBA so that it automatically arms when the SCBA air supply is engaged or when the SCBA is removed from its mounting bracket. The activation of the PASS device should result in an immediate response to rescue the firefighter(s) in distress.

The Canadian Firefighter’s Handbook (first edition) states that the most common problem with PASS devices is that wearers simply forget to turn their units on when the unit is not integrated into the SCBA. It goes on to say that oversights of this nature have contributed to numerous firefighter fatalities.
Although the aforementioned problem is of concern, what should concern the Canadian fire service more is the reality that firefighters do not respect the PASS device. It goes off so often in non-emergency situations that, in essence, it’s easy to tune it out or ignore it.

The first sentence under the title Personal Protective Equipment Effectiveness: Street Smarts in the Canadian Firefighter’s Handbook states: “To maximize the effectiveness of all PPE, firefighters must develop automatic behaviours.”

The firefighter’s behaviour (perhaps more specifically the incident commander’s behaviour) toward an activated PASS must change. When activated, the PASS device emits a high-pitched audible alert of at least 95 decibels. On a fire ground, the activation of the PASS device should result in an immediate response to rescue the firefighter(s) in distress. However, because we hear it go off so often during practice or during mop-up, our learned behaviour is to simply ignore it or yell out “wiggle.” Rather than warning us of a true emergency, we see the PASS alarm more as an annoyance.

How often do we hear a car alarm go off and no one responds? Unfortunately, the PASS device is following that same path. It is imperative that training officers re-institute the seriousness of PASS alarms. We must help firefighters develop an automatic reaction to the PASS device other than shouting, “wiggle.”

There are three things that stand out for me in light of 9-11:

  • Firefighters must be made aware of long-term health concerns from working in immediately dangerous to life or health environments. Every effort should be taken to protect our firefighters and their families.
  • Critical-incident stress management is a must for our members.
  • The activation of a PASS device should trigger our minds to immediately investigate whether an immediate response to rescue a firefighter(s) in distress is necessary.

If you look closely you will see that all three points concern alarms. Alarms should go off for us when we hear an activated PASS device. A fellow firefighter may very well be in distress. Alarms should also be going off for us when we wake up coughing, hacking and spitting up phlegm after a fire. Don’t wait to get checked out – some of us did and now we suffer from cancer and limited lung function. And finally, alarms should be going off for us when a fellow firefighter shows signs of critical-incident stress. Don’t expect them to get help for themselves. We must be alert to those alarms sounding all around us – the bell, indeed, tolls for us . . .

In closing, I want to especially remember the firefighters and their families affected by 9-11, those who, so unselfishly, were more concerned about others to the point of losing their lives – nowhere is it said better than in John 13:15: There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.


Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and Greenwood Fire and Rescue. The 21-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a Wildland Urban Interface fire suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact Ed at ed@thefire.ca


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