A case for retiring 'first responder'

The term first responder has outlived its usefulness to the point of becoming detrimental to those who respond first


The term "first responder" was born out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was coined for very good reasons.

First, it was hard to be all-inclusive when reporting on the hundreds of firefighters, paramedics and police officers who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings trying. While we remember the over 3,000 who died that day, we also have to remember that the safe evacuation of over 20,000 workers in the World Trade Center was by far the largest successful rescue operation ever undertaken by the fire service.

It was also hard to express the diversity in the rank structure of those killed — literally from a deputy fire commissioner and the chief of the department down to probationary firefighters, with no rank left unscathed. There were also police officers killed from multiple agencies: the NYPD, the Port Authority and the Transit Police all suffered losses.

Finally, it was also difficult to try to remember, let alone name, all the local, state and federal agencies that came to assist in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pa.

Hence the first responder was used as a badge of honor for all of those who slugged it out under extremely difficult conditions to rescue, treat the injured and to recover those murdered on that day.

My objection to the continued use of first responder comes from my belief that it has been hijacked by some and grossly misused by others. The most glaring of this misuse comes from the media and from some public officials.

On the media
Many who work the media were in elementary school when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. Too young to really comprehend what happened that day, their recollection is mostly what they have seen from the collection of videos and photos that are archived where the term first responder is used.

Many of those reporters are now employed in small- to medium-media markets, and their goal is often to use their current position as a stepping stone to a much larger media market. So they fail to take the time to learn the diverse responsibilities of their local fire, EMS or law enforcement at scene of an emergency.

Hence they use the all-encompassing first responder term as a catch all.

Also, the combination of two recessions since 9/11 and the disruptive force the Internet had on the publishing industry’s business model left many newsrooms woefully understaffed. And those fewer reporters and editors were and are working against a growing demand for 24-hour news.

But a bit more ominous are those reporters who use the term as a cover for their reporting certain items as "fact" when they haven't been verified either in writing or by two independent sources.

Use of first responder also covers their virtual lack of understanding of which agency was in charge or would have the responsibility for mitigation of the incident.

Agency having responsibility
Some local, state and even worse, federal officials, are equally clueless in their understanding as to who is in charge and who is assuming a support role at critical incidents.

Look at the press conference held after the next big emergency and see who is there standing behind the speaker or who is identified as part of the response team. Is the fire chief among them? Is he or she dressed so to be singled out as the fire chief — in turnout gear or an appropriate uniform designating their authority?

Chances are the mayor, governor or federal bureaucrat will also use first responders in their comments because they weren't there in the early hours of the incident and neither realize, nor in some cases care, who did what to mitigate the pain and suffering.

For example, they missed seeing the firefighter/paramedics who slogged it out in the trenches — extricating then triaging and treating victims, before transporting them to an appropriate medical facility while using a mass-casualty protocol that keeps track of the injured or dead and where they can be found.

And too often they also don't realize the roles of our co-workers in law enforcement are to first secure the perimeter, keeping out unauthorized people, and then begin their criminal investigation after the victims have been handled.

First responder blurs the line in these responses and has almost taken on an air of politically correctness that discredits both of our noble professions.

Facts be damned
Most recently, however, I'm really annoyed at the Hollywood-style recruitment advertising used by the National Guard. Don't get me wrong, the Guard has a strong supporting role in natural disasters, civil emergencies and when federalized, our military.

But they are not firefighters or police officers.  

The ad that specifically annoys me is where a new guardsman talks about going to her first call-out as a member of the Guard. The ad focuses on a forest fire while the guardsmen don regular firefighting turnout gear and ride up to fire lines inside a 2½-ton military transport truck.

Now let's stop a second at what this ad is inferring.

First, they are incorrectly using structural firefighting gear, giving the impression they have the same training as most of us. Second, they imply anyone can fight a forest fire.

And third, they mention nothing about the hours of advanced training that a forestry firefighter must take, including an annual recertification, to maintain their Red Card. And that just gets someone to a base camp, let alone not to the fire line.

Corrective action
The fact is this ad is a blatant distortion that anyone, including the National Guard, is a first responder. The ad screams how badly the term first responder has been corrupted.

What's the solution?

It's time that both the fire service and law enforcement politely remind our civilians, media representatives and public officials that we are the thin blue line that separates order from chaos on a day-to-day basis.

We need to remind them that we both have different roles but are part of the same team that protects our community from mayhem — and that while separate and distinct, virtually one cannot exist without the other.

Next time someone uses the cavalier term first responder to describe what you do, kindly but firmly ask them to nix that term and remind them who does what on the incident scene and how they should take the time to learn what it takes to fill your shoes.

About the author

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at Robert.Rielage@FireRescue1.com.

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