August 7, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 329

When The Heroes Of 9-11 Flee...Who Do We Honor?

Cliff McKenzie
                        Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

       GROUND ZERO, New York City, August 7--The heroes of Nine Eleven are fleeing in vast numbers.    They've had it.   No more heroism.   No more risking their lives for others.   It's retirement time.  It's Terrorism time.
       For nearly a year the public has hoisted the firemen and firewomen of New York City on an Olympic pedestal, bowing at their incredible acts of bravery as they rushed into burning buildings to save thousands trapped inside the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the September 11 Terrorist attack.

      A total of 343 firemen lost their lives that day, the largest single death of firemen in history.   As a result, their names and faces--of the living as well as dead--have adorned posters, ads, and even Rescue Hero toys.    They have become "gods" to many, living legends.   They even replaced Joe Rosenthal's famous Iwo Jima photo as they raised a tattered American Flag on Ground Zero, reminding America and the world that "bravery" and "courage" were still the marrow of the average American "grunt."   
      But now it's time to cash in on the glory, at least for far too many.
      Firemen are leaving the ranks of the hollowed halls of fame, stuffing their pockets with heaps of cash as they do.   They are retiring in unprecedented numbers, startling the city and eviscerating its leadership body of veteran experience vital to the continuity of the public's safety and protection.
      Veterans form a legacy of Vigilance among the new, green, untested troops.   Having been nose-to-nose with the face of death many times, they offer the novice a steadying hand, a sense of calm in the midst of the storm that no other can provide.   They form models, living legends the new can look up to and aspire to become.    But when they leave in droves, when they hightail it to the high ground, they shatter the nucleus of leadership, and fray the knitting of experience that protects the public from mistakes younger, less adroit, less mature firefighters have yet to learn.

       At the senior command level of the New York Fire Department (FDNY), those in rank of lieutenant and above, retirements are 60 percent higher than in the previous year, according to data from the fire department and union officials representing them.  Seven of the top fire commanders have announced they are leaving the department.  Their collective knowledge represents 250 years of experience, an average of 35 years each.   These include the chief of safety, the chief of the department, Daniel A. Nigro, and the former chief of the Bureau of Fire Prevention.    Added to the two other senior leaders killed during the attacks, the aforementioned retirements virtually rip the guts out of the senior command of one of the world's largest fire-fighting units.
       But that's not where it stops.

      The rank and file members of the FDNY are following suit.   Of the 8,500 front-line members of the FDNY, retirements are nearly 250 percent, according to the union.   Prior to September 11, retirement rates among the rank and file might have averaged 40 a month, noted the spokesman, but currently the exodus averages 40 a week.
       Both the generals and sergeants are leaving the rookies to fend for themselves.
       Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, noted that 661 firefighters of all ranks filed retirement requests between January and July 26, compared with 274 in the same period last year, a 241 percent increase.

      Reasons given for the exodus include the trauma of the event, and the startling reality of the dangers facing a firefighter in case of a disaster.   But many argue that the single biggest motivator is greed--money!
       Retirement formulas include the highest recent year of pay as a major factor in deciding economic benefits.   Firemen with more than 20 years on the job are entitled to a pension equal to half of what they earned in the last 12 months of employment.   Firefighters typically earn around $65,000 a year, noted Captain Peter Gorman, president of the 2,500-member Uniformed Fire Officers Association.   Additional overtime this year have shoved those earnings to $80,000.
       Gorman notes that "emotions should not drive retirement," and in defense of the large numbers leaving the department, says the "enormity of the tragedy caused most members to bring the problems home to their family.   Retirement became an emotional as well as financial decision," he said.
       To battle the loss of experience, retention programs are being hastily put together.   Albany recently passed legislation allowing firefighters who have 20 years to bank annual payments (now at $9,500) that are usually doled out after retirement as an incentive to stay on the job.
       September 11 certainly provided an emotional punch to the stomach of many firefighters who witnessed the death and destruction of so many at one time--especially their comrades, buddies, pals, friends.   But the lure of money cannot be overlooked.   Over a 20-year period, the overtime retirement benefits resulting from Nine Eleven amounts to $150,000, a 20 percent overall increase in payouts for the average firefighter with 20 years or more.
       It would be hard for anyone not to take "the money and run."  And that's what a vast majority are doing.

      But it concerns me that collectively the body of new firefighters in New York City are being left naked, stripped of vital life-saving experience only a combat vet can offer.    That experience is priceless.
       In Vietnam, because of my job as U.S. Marine Combat Correspondent, I could pick and choose with whom I decided to enter combat.   I carefully studied which leader had the least casualties, and was most experienced in overpowering the enemy, and chose to go with him.  I avoided the inexperienced as one might the plague.   I figured I'd learn the most and live to tell about it from the best.   I chose rightly.
        In a similar manner, firefighter Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, noted the loss of lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs--the sergeants of the FDNY--would leave a void in the rank and file.  What he really meant to say was it would leave a Terrorist void.     

Firemen in training

       The void I'm talking about is a bunch of rookies, sparse on experienced leadership, tackling a blaze in my children's apartments.  I think of my grandchildren's safety, where split second on-the-scene decisions can mean the saving of a life, and where a moment of indecision can cost one.
        I wonder if that's worth $150,000 over the next two decades?
        Retiring fire leaders vowed upon entering the department that the public's safety came first.   Now, economic security seems to dominate.
       I wonder if those who are "taking the money and running" feel a little bit like the executives at Enron or WorldCom or Tyco, or, if they've even compared themselves to those "kinds of people."
       While it is not for me to say what drives a person to make a decision to leave their job as a public servant, it appears on the surface that many have chosen the money over the cause.   The "golden parachute" of $150,000 extra in income may have blinded far too many to leave before their job is done.
        Parents of Vigilance have a special duty, one that exceeds money, power, fame, prestige.   That duty is to insure their fledglings can fly on their own before they abandon them.

        Even though FDNY has recruited 1,200 new people since September 11, the 13,000 years of collective experience representing the experience of the retiring 643 fire personnel, cannot be duplicated.  It can't be bought with money.

        Vigilance is all about mustering the Courage and Conviction to take the Right Actions necessary to protect the Children, and their Children's Children from harm.   Terrorism is about being Fearful and Intimidated and becoming Complacent, turning one's eye blind to the future of the Children and seeing only the selfish goal, not the selfless one.
         The glitter of gold has, in my view, blinded many firemen to the responsibility of Vigilance.   In a way, the Heroes of Nine Eleven have become the Terrorists of the future.   By stripping the department bare of experience, those who chose money over purpose expose the public to harm, and trigger a time bomb that will go off as a result of faulty leadership.

       The real Heroes of Nine Eleven are not those who rushed into burning buildings on September 11.  That was their job, their duty.  That was normal, expected.
       The real Heroes of Nine Eleven are those firemen who could retire and have chosen not to, not because they may not want to as their friends are doing, but because they hear the call of the Sentinels of Vigilance, all those who died on Nine Eleven, their comrades in duty and the other victims of the Terrorism that day.
         They hear their Voices chanting:  "Duty!"  "Duty!"  "Duty!"
         They are willing to sacrifice the gold for the glory, but their glory is unsung, anonymous, a trust bond they entered into two decades earlier when they raised their hand and swore their commitment to the public.

         These are the real Heroes of Nine Eleven.    These are men and women who could have "cut and run" but didn't.   We won't read about them in the newspapers because they aren't those kind of people.   We may never know their names.   They are the Quiet Heroes, the ones who represent the highest degree of Vigilance.
          They are the ones we should kneel before.

Go Aug. 6--Terrorist Attack Kills 400,000 Japanese


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