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He showed up on 9/11 to volunteer his help, and now he’s sick. We must help him, legislator says

By James Kennedy

Lt. Bill Ricci knows he will continue to have respiratory problems. He also knows it will be because of 9/11.

Ricci, a professional firefighter in Clifton, Passaic County, wasn’t asked to respond to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He volunteered to go to the scene alongside 87 other Clifton firefighters without blinking an eye.

This mentality is shared among first responders; if they’re needed, they’ll be there. Particularly during severe, history-making emergencies, it doesn’t matter if they’re on the clock.

Ricci wasn’t technically on the job that day, but he saw the same terror as those who were. He took the same risks. And like so many other first responders on the scene that day, he suffers from health problems as a result.

Unlike first responders who were ordered to Ground Zero, however, Ricci does not have access to accidental disability allowance under the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) because he responded as a volunteer. He cannot be fairly compensated or allowed retirement disability benefits, despite having done the same work as his paid counterparts on 9/11.

This discrepancy is not merely unfair. It’s disgraceful and disrespectful to the brave first responders who volunteered their time and services on one of the darkest days in American history. We can all agree that they deserve far, far better.

Lt. Ricci isn’t the only 9/11 first responder, voluntary or otherwise, who suffered an illness or permanent or temporary disability. More than 43,000 people have been certified with a 9/11 related health condition by the World Trade Center Health Program. Toxic exposure may have contributed to cases of cancer, asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder, respiratory problems and neurological damage.

Disability and disease does not discriminate. Anyone could have been adversely affected by the chemicals and toxic dust in the air on 9/11, and in the days and weeks after. That means everyone – 9/11 survivors as well as paid and voluntary first responders – should have access to disability benefits.

It’s time to expand eligibility for accidental disability allowance to include voluntary first responders who are members or retirees of the PFRS and the State Police Retirement System (SPRS). With this benefit, countless first responders like Lt. Ricci will be able to make their health a priority.

We promised we would never forget the events of 18 years ago. Let’s keep that promise to our first responders.

Assemblyman James Kennedy represents New Jersey’s 22nd Legislative District, spanning parts of Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties. He is the sponsor of bill (A-4882) to make volunteer 9/11 responders in the PFRS and SPRS eligible for accidently disability allowance for disabilities resulting from World Trade Center rescue, recovery or cleanup operations.