Mustafa Santiago Ali is currently the senior vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation. Credit: Tribune News Service

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For more than 20 years, in my former role as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emergency response team, I have worked on several natural and man-made disasters.

I have seen the heroism of men and women during deadly storms and floods.

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I’ve watched the incredible dedication of first responders rushing into the twin towers in New York on 9/11, not knowing if they would ever return home to see their families. I have witnessed the painful search for the missing by exhausted first responders and volunteers.

I have stood by as firefighters fought to contain wildfires in California and prevent chemical explosions in Louisiana.

As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson once shared, “I’ve always seen first responders as unsung heroes and very special people because, when everyone else is running away from danger, they run into it.”

The American Security Foundation estimates that America has 891,000 emergency medical service professionals, including 600,000 EMTs and 142,000 paramedics. Every day, they provide emergency medical treatment to those injured or acutely ill, transporting more than 16 million patients by ambulance annually.

According to the National Fire Department Registry, there are approximately 1,065,200 firefighters serving in 27,195 fire departments nationwide, and responding to emergencies from 51,382 fire stations.

New York City is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. The numbers continue to grow exponentially, and access to medical services is already strained. But the first responders are continuing to do their jobs, putting themselves on the line.

We should not forget our first responders who breathed in dangerous toxic dust for weeks at ground zero in New York City, resulting in thousands of them having long-term chronic health impacts — everything from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, rhinosinusitis, sleep apnea, respiratory disease and cancer.

Many 9/11 responders have died, or are in hospice care and in other medical facilities. Let us remember our promise when President Donald Trump signed the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, pledging that our brave men and women would never be left alone again.

First responders and local health workers are also bearing public health scars from the impacts of climate change over the past few years. Exposed to significantly longer and more intense periods of air pollutants from fires, firefighters in the Western U.S. are suffering from an increase in respiratory ailments.

During the current COVID-19 crisis, as our doctors, nurses and other health professionals are being utilized in even greater numbers as front-line first responders, we should remember the words of Ben Nelson, former Democratic U.S. senator from Nebraska, who said, “Our first responders risk their lives to help others. The least we can do is make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs.”

As more first responders are being exposed to COVID-19, let’s make sure they are equipped with the surgical masks, gloves and the additional personal protective equipment they need to meet the threat. And let’s start preparing to make sure that they will continue to receive the care they have earned, for the rest of their lives.

Mustafa Santiago Ali is currently the senior vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation. He served as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant associate administrator for environmental justice. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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