Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002|
(September 11, 2002) Agencies dispute urban search-and-rescue team's reimbursements for equipment and health care after Sept. 11.
by Pam Sturner
For 13 days last September, 67 Bay Area firefighters pitched into the grueling work of recovery at the World Trade Center. They also built a fire department from scratch to replace the New York force decimated by the attacks -- and prepare for deployment if the terrorists struck again.
Such heroics notwithstanding, one last task has become mission impossible for the team, which is known as California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3: getting reimbursed for expenses incurred at Ground Zero.
Task Force 3, which is based in Menlo Park, is awaiting $47,000 from the federal government for equipment bought for the mission, said Capt. Harold Schapelhouman, the team leader.
In a bitter twist, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is disputing nearly $37,000 of the bill -- including about $24,000 for items related to respiratory protection and collapsed building searches.
Last month, FEMA rejected the team's reimbursement claims for roughly $10,000 for masks, filters and atmospheric monitors, $8,000 for a communication system adapted for confined spaces, $2,000 for cell phones, and $4,200 for a decontamination shower, Schapelhouman said.
FEMA gave the thumbs-down because the purchases either weren't on the official equipment list or exceeded the quantity allowed.
That irks Schapelhouman, who bought the gear when reports of dangerous working conditions came back during the team's week-long wait for deployment.
"We saw the conditions during our wait here, and we knew of the respiratory problems and the potential for long-term health effects," he said.
The cell phones and confined-space communication system were also vital to the workers' safety, Schapelhouman said, since the density of the debris pile and the destruction of phone lines in the area made communication impossible otherwise.
Getting federal workers' compensation has also proved difficult. Team members have been inundated with forms, including four separate medical surveys, to the point of exhaustion, Schapelhouman said.
For months, he has been trying to get the U.S. Department of Labor to let him handle the paperwork for the entire team. So far, the agency has refused, insisting that individual team members fill out the multiple forms themselves.
That policy makes some of the men feel like giving up.
"A real factor is that our guys are tired. They get these forms that ask them yet another set of questions and they say, 'I don't need this right now.' Everyone wants to move on," Schapelhouman said.
Three-quarters of the team became ill after the mission, and about half developed respiratory problems, including coughs, sinus infections and pneumonia. Although everyone is back to work, one man remained on steroids into the summer for respiratory problems.
Schapelhouman said he and team members have remarked on the persistence and severity of their coughs. Schapelhouman's is triggered by dust, dirt and concrete -- elements hard to escape in his work-- and makes him sound "like an 80-year-old with emphysema."
Other team members declined to talk to the Weekly about their health since Sept. 11, or their experiences dealing with federal workers' compensation.
In an effort to get the team's health claims paid, Schapelhouman is now getting help from an intermediary hired by FEMA.
Even so, the process seems agonizingly bureaucratic to Schapelhouman. "They said we didn't provide adequate documentation of exposure for each person. Didn't they watch TV? Didn't they read the papers?" he asked, incredulous.
Cindy Ramsay, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the team can appeal the claims rejections by providing "legitimate and compelling reasons" as to why the equipment was needed.
In addition to payment, Schapelhouman wants to see the federal government issue definitive findings on the air quality at Ground Zero. So far, reports made by various groups offer wildly varying conclusions.
One of the most dire, a study done at UC Davis, suggests that respiratory masks were useless against airborne glass particles that permeated the debris cloud. But according to other reports that Schapelhouman has seen, lasting health effects should be minimal.
With so little known about the long-term health effects for the rescue workers, Schapelhouman wants to have New York-based Cedar Sinai Hospital, which is monitoring health at Ground Zero long term, create a satellite for the Bay Area team.
Of the $37,000 in dispute with FEMA, Schapelhouman says he will withdraw two claims worth several thousand dollars each. One is for a scale used to weigh equipment for military transport; the other, for caps and polo shirts made for the team. He plans to appeal the rest.
Based on his experience after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Schapelhouman is optimistic that the money will eventually come through. Although the process took almost two years, all his appeals were accepted for that bill, which totaled $100,000.
Despite his frustration, he says he doesn't blame FEMA for the way it has handled the Sept. 11 claims.
"I'm not a government-basher . . . They're just doing their job," he said. "But nobody seemed to mind how the work got done when it was just us going to answer the call."
E-mail Pam Sturner at email@example.com