Top Image © Lloyd Mitchell, Urban Firefighting Portfolio | Friends of Firefighters
By Raye Mocioiu
Over two decades ago, just days after 9/11 shook the world, New Yorker Nancy Carbone was among thousands looking for a way to help. In a time of fear and catastrophe, active and retired firefighters or emergency responders from across the city flocked to the World Trade Center, and tragically, many lives were lost.
Carbone recognized that these brave men and women were carrying an immense load; between funerals, spending long hours at the disaster site, and still working at the firehouse, firefighters were suffering from PTS (post traumatic stress), survivor’s guilt, and physical and mental exhaustion. Carbone went from firehouse to firehouse, from Brooklyn Heights to Red Hook to the Bronx, asking how she could help ease the burden on those putting their lives on the line at Ground Zero.
It was around this time that Lt. Tony Mussorfiti, now retired, met Carbone and saw her willingness to help. At the time, Mussorfiti shared, the government was trying to provide support for firefighters or emergency responders, but they never felt like the right fit and were swiftly sent away.
“Nancy was different,” Mussorfiti, whose firehouse lost 19 members during 9/11, said. “She was already building that relationship with the firefighters by actively trying to help. She was trusted.”
The requests Carbone was filling for these firehouses ranged from funeral services to memorial supplies, but seeing the need for support changed the course of Carbone’s life: there was a dire need for counseling amongst the firefighters or emergency responders to help process the tragedy, the loss, and the impact of the disaster—and it needed to be done in a way that firefighters, notorious for keeping their vulnerabilities hidden, would feel comfortable.
Although Carbone had no experience in the counseling field, she took this request seriously. She began asking the firefighters if anyone had started to display unhealthy habits—and because they trusted her, they were honest with her. They realized that counseling was something that they needed, and Carbone was there to make it happen.
Within months, she opened a space for firefighters to get confidential help without having it reported. Thus, Friends of Firefighters (friendsoffirefighters.org) was born.
In the days and months after 9/11, there was a lot of loss and grief. Having access to a trusted person who could help them was a lifeline. Even responders like Mussorfiti, who were focused on their mission, were reassured to know that help was available when times were tough.
“Just making the call helped tremendously, but it took learning the tools to be able to overcome the physical reaction to the anxiety,” Mussorfiti recalled. “It wasn’t that I was afraid, it was that I was overwhelmed. I still use those tools today, and I share them with other people.”
Mussorfiti, who has sat on the Friends of Firefighters advisory board since 2005, also runs a breakfast club for members of HazMat 1. It began as a small outing of four people but grew over the years to a sizable group of firefighters or emergency responders who feel safe connecting and sharing their experiences and stories. For two hours once a month, the group takes over a diner and talks about the good times, the bad times, how they’re really doing, and everything in between. Carbone is the only non-FDNY member invited to this breakfast, a testament to how involved and trusted she has become within the community.
“We understand each other,” Mussorfiti said of the firefighters or emergency responders. “We have shared experiences, and it’s a good way to reach out to those who may be struggling and don’t know where to turn.”
Mussorfiti regularly invites new members to the breakfast, checking in with them and seeing if they could benefit from the support services offered at Friends of Firefighters.
“What I always tell people is that one of the things we found that works best is peer counseling—speaking with someone who understands,” Mussorfiti shared. “Not looking for sympathy, looking for guidance, directions, and tools. What works for me may not work for everyone else, but I still use those tools to this day.”
For many firefighters and emergency responders, Mussorfiti included, healing is a lifelong process. The impacts of PTSD stay with a person long after the danger is gone, and images and sensations from the event will come back, sometimes without any warning.
Having gone through the tragedy of 9/11 and the aftermath, Mussorfiti understands firsthand the hardships emergency responders face on a daily basis—most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency responders toed the line for all of us during the pandemic with little or no access to their families and friends for support.
“During 9/11 we were there every week afterwards, you could go back to the firehouse, and go home and see your family,” he shared. “With the pandemic, you couldn’t do that. You didn’t know who was exposed, you couldn’t go home because you were fearful of bringing it home to your family.”
While Mussorfiti wasn’t working as a firefighter or emergency responder during the pandemic, he shared that they tell all responders—no matter what tragedy they’ve been a part of—to work through their emotions in whatever way works for them.
“I used to travel a lot, before the pandemic,” Mussorfiti recalls. “One day, I had boarded my flight early and I started to feel really anxious, I could feel it coming on, but couldn’t figure out why. I suddenly realized that the music that they had playing over the speakers was familiar to me—I had heard it in a lot of videos about 9/11. At first, the familiarity didn’t register—all that registered was the anxiety I felt.”
At that moment, the tools he had learned through Friends of Firefighters counseling were able to help him. To Mussorfiti, moments like those are a testament to the long-lasting positive impact Friends of Firefighters can have.
Friends of Firefighters continues to connect active and retired FDNY firefighter communities and their families with free tools and resources for greater mental health, but donations are necessary to expand their team and their services.
Firefighters are there for us in some of the worst hours of our lives, and it is a privilege to be there for them in their times of need.