Eighteen years later, the damage done in the coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is still making itself known.
“We are still feeling the fallout from that day,” said State Fire Marshal Tim Bean.
Bean, formerly the chief of the West Plains Fire Department, made his remarks as he reflected on information that has come to light regarding the first responders and firefighters who were exposed to chemicals and hazardous materials. Many have suffered illnesses since, including deadly cancers.
During the Springfield Area 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb that took place Saturday, Bean said he was alarmed to learn that about 300 first responders, including firefighters, had succumbed to illnesses related to exposure during the aftermath of 9/11.
The number of firefighters who perished in rescue efforts Sept. 11, 2001, is 343.
“Now, almost 20 years later, we’ve seen a spike in medical and cancer events and it looks like that number is going to keep coming up,” said Bean. “In the first responder and fire world, we’re just seeing an increase in the magnitude of firefighter cancers. The numbers are just starting to surface and are pointing to a laundry list of carcinogenic exposures.
“It’s a new hot topic in the fire world and now we’re taking steps to educate firefighters about similar exposures to toxins.”
In the last four to five decades, firefighters are increasingly being exposed to polymers, plastics and formaldehydes more commonly used in homebuilding, furnishings and other household materials, compared to the more common natural materials like cotton and wood of the past, said Bean.
Research resulting from firefighter exposure to toxins during 9/11 is leading to new advice on how to handle gear and cleansing the body of possibly harmful chemical residues as soon as possible after contact.
“It’s really becoming a necessity,” Bean emphasized. “In West Plains, we have full time firefighters, but we also have rural fire department volunteers who leave their day job then might go back to work without cleaning off contaminants.”
“It’s complicated but important,” he said of the procedures needed to reduce the risk of illness from exposure.
That includes more careful handling of turnout gear to prevent hazardous agents from being spread to vehicle seats and implementing other precautions.
In an article he penned for the Quill in 2011, on the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bean recalled the events of the day and watching events unfold in the company local firefighters and police officers. Bean was chief of the West Plains Fire Department at the time.
“As I watched the emergency service first responders enter the scene, which transformed into the extraordinary situation that some may lose their lives to save others, I had no idea the we, in the fire service, would lose 343 brothers and sisters that day and the days that followed proving American heroes respond without hesitation,” he wrote.
In those first 10 years, Bean said, emergency service management “changed forever, taking on new dimensions.”
Weapons of mass destruction, chemical radiological nuclear explosives, National Incident Management System and Homeland Security Systems became part of the vocabulary, and the previously unheard of possibility of a large-scale terrorist attack led to hours of training, simulation exercises and billions of dollars invested in preparation.
“I feel our nation’s emergency service community will never look at our homeland security the same,” he said at the time.