The Terrible Toll on First Responders in NYC

May 15, 2020

AN INVISIBLE BULLET: On April 17, NYPD Brooklyn Detective Jack Polimeni, a 23 year veteran was buried. He died on April 10 from COVID19. According to DEA president Paul Digiacomo, five NYPD detectives have died during the pandemic due to the highly contagious virus.
Credit New York City Detectives Endowment Association

Here in our region, with the rate of COVID19 hospitalizations on the decline, officials have started the process of determining just how to restart the economy. But the pandemic has taken a terrible toll on first responders and their families.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently briefed reporters on one way the city was trying to help these families cope.  

"260 city employees have lost their lives, and this includes Police Officers, Correction Officers, Teachers, EMTS, Doctors and Nurses, people who have given so much and gave the ultimate sacrifice fighting this disease. Now, their families in some cases are facing the loss of health insurance and we want to make sure there is immediate support for those families."

DOYLE: With us now is WBGO contributor Bob Hennelly, who is also a reporter for the The Chief-Leader where he covers City Hall, transportation and emergency services. Thanks for joining us Bob. So, Bob is there any precedent for something like this in terms of the impact on front line civil service workers?

HENNELLY: Well, according to the history books in 1918 to 1920 during the Spanish Flu Epidemic New York City, depending on the resource you consult, lost between 20,000 to 30,000 people—400 to 500 a day at one point and that included a lot of civil servants no doubt. More recently, on Sept. 11, 2001 we lost 343 firefighters when the towers collapsed and we know, because of the toxic nature of the air in Lower Manhattan after the attack up to 50,000 people participating in the WTC Health Program are dealing with a myriad of cancers from that exposure. But this [national] pandemic is unprecedented.

DOYLE: The Mayor referenced that the city was stepping in to ensure the continuity of health care coverage for the surviving family members. That gesture is about more than honoring the memory of the first responders isn't it?

HENNELLY: What so unusual about this event is that the families that are part of a household with a first responder are themselves, as a consequence of the love ones service, due to the highly contagious nature of this virus, are themselves dealing with the health consequences, or can expect to. And, also add to this that even small children in these households have a possible exposure risk---particularly if they have a pre-existing condition.

DOYLE: So, how do you think the loss of so many first responders over the past two months will impact the way the public agencies and departments that employed them operate?

HENNELLY: Probably the biggest challenge since these agencies were established. It means recalibrating every aspect of their point of contact with the public. For agencies, , police agencies, firefighters, EMTS or anyone with any interface with the public they have to take a hard look at all of their environments. In places like the local welfare office, or a place where food stamps are signed up for and reconceive them. They have to make sure social distancing is built into the backroom operations and make sure the clients, or if you are in a healthcare setting, the patients respect all of the social distancing rules and wear masks.

DOYLE: Bob, you have been covering the civil service workers throughout the pandemic. Is there one particular story that you can pick out that has touched you?

HENNELLY: I would say certainly the disclosure about the death of the five-month-old daughter of the FDNY probationary firefighter who succumbed to COVID19 who has a pre-existing heart condition. And that came a few weeks before we really understood the full nature of this disease and its potential impact on children.”

DOUG: Bob, tragically the catastrophic loss of life for first responders is playing out across the country. What's happening at the Federal level to help first responders and their families?

HENNELLY: There is right now something pending in Congress and it is headlined as the Heroes Act and there are many different provisions of it. But the one I am keeping my eye on for the Chief-Leader would expand and re-enforce the DOJ’s Public Safety Officer Benefit Program. Currently, the families of individuals who are peace officers, firefighters, EMTS who lose their lives in the line of duty are entitled to a $365,000 payout. And for their kids going to school I think it is a $1,200 monthly stipend for a student attending college. To give you a sense of the scale of it, 300 to 400 officers qualify for it a year. In 2017 it was close to 400. The scale of this could be considerable. In no way could this fully compensate them for their loss but it is a start.

DOYLE: Thanks Bob and thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.

Note: Nest week Bob will report on the bi-partisan push in Congress to establish the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act modeled on the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund that would cover all essential workers and their families.