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FDNY's Top Chief Urges Safety Fixes

A top New York City fire official called on the federal government yesterday to learn the lessons from 9/11, and make "a concerted, long-term effort" to protect first responders.

"On Sept. 11, there was nothing we could have done to have saved the lives of those on the Towers' highest floors," acknowledged Deputy New York City Fire Chief Nicholas Visconti.

"But we could have and we should have saved 121 firefighters who couldn't hear evacuation orders because their radios weren't working," he said. "We could have and should have lessened the health impact on responders by providing them with proper respirators and protective gear from Day One. We could have and should have operated under a unified command system."

But changes have been slow in coming, he testified to the House Homeland Security Committee.

While some improvements have been made to communications and other equipment, "we have yet to focus on how to better protect the individuals who respond to major disasters in a comprehensive way," Visconti said.

Witnesses assailed health and safety monitoring in particular. Although an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people who worked on the pile at Ground Zero were exposed to toxic dust and debris, federal monitoring continues to be "stop and start," said Cynthia Bascetta of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Tens of thousands of those individuals have yet to be screened at all, she said.

"We recommended in July 2007 that the Secretary of Health and Human Services ... ensure that health screening and monitoring services are available to all people who responded to the attack, regardless of who their employer was or where they reside," said Bascetta, the GAO's health care director.

"As of September, 2007, the department has not responded to this recommendation."

Meanwhile, new illnesses continue to be diagnosed in those who have come forward. Between 400 and 500 new people register every month with the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mount Sinai Hospital, said director Dr. Philip Landrigan.

More than two-thirds of the 9,442 responders screened between July 2002 and April 2004 have been diagnosed with new or worsened lung problems, he said. "The possibility is real that illnesses will persist at least in some, and that new diseases will emerge in others."

Funding for the Mount Sinai program ends in 2009.

Asked what lessons might be applied to future disasters, Landrigan was blunt.

"We can expect the responders who rush into these disasters to get sick," he said. "And we need to have plans in place to monitor and treat them."

carol.eisenberg@newsday.com

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