Gov. Kathy Hochul greets members of the New York National Guard in...

Gov. Kathy Hochul greets members of the New York National Guard in Manhattan Saturday.   Credit: Office of the Governor/Darren McGee

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law three pieces of legislation on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, all designed to expand the pool of people considered first responders during the terrorist attacks and make it easier for them to apply for benefits online.

She also proposed legislation that would allow New York National Guard members to qualify as veterans under state law.

One of the new laws she signed expressly defined the first responder category to include 911 operators, EMS dispatchers and others working in similar jobs as defined by local government regulations.

"These laws will help not only first responders who were at the World Trade Center on that terrible day and those who cleaned the site for weeks afterward, but also the emergency dispatchers and communications personnel who keep us safe today," Hochul said in a statement accompanying her signings. "We will ensure they receive the support and benefits they deserve."

Another signed measure allows for first responders to apply for benefits online through their relevant retirement systems.

A third expands the definition of a World Trade Center responder to include any person who is currently a member of a public retirement system, regardless of whether the employee was a participant of the retirement system at that time of the attacks, subject to certain time limitations.

This measure would allow employees who were not vested in their respective retirement systems at the time of the attack to be covered for benefits, explained Daniel Levler, head of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees. Those covered by the measure include people who participated in rescue, recovery and cleanup work related to Sept. 11.

Levler helped push for the changes in the law that provided first responder status for the operators and dispatchers.

A spokesman for Hochul didn't immediately return a telephone call for comment, and it wasn't clear how many people are impacted by the changes.

NYPD officials said the city 911 system alone has approximately 1,500 operators and staff. Levler told Newsday about 300 Suffolk County employees would be affected, and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 statewide.

"New York's emergency operators and dispatchers provide invaluable services to us all. It is long past time we remove existing roadblocks that prevent these essential emergency workers from providing the full range of support they can give and denying them of benefits they deserve," said State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford).

Levler agreed with Brooks and in a statement noted that Suffolk 911 operators played a critical role during Tropical Storm Ida, answering calls for relatives whose family members in Queens were trapped by rising flood water.

State Rep. Peter Abbate (D-Brooklyn) said allowing online filing for benefits instead of by paper — a measure he sponsored — is particularly helpful during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the New York National Guard members, Hochul pointed out that some who responded on Sept. 11 are not eligible for support services and federal and state benefits because they were not on active federal duty at the time. "I am introducing legislation that will ensure that all of the National Guard members who were ordered into service at Ground Zero, and who have not otherwise earned veteran status through federal activation, are fully recognized as veterans under New York State law."

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