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How to create a first responder recognition program

More than ever, those on the front lines need to see their work elevated and appreciated

group of  crystal trophies against purple background

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By Alan Doubleday

It’s a tough time in the fire service, whether you’re in a career or volunteer department. Call volumes have increased, training standards require more time away from home, and the fiscal costs of personnel, equipment and apparatus are rising faster than our agency budgets can keep up with. Adding forced overtime while asking our firefighters to do more with less will undeniably contribute to burnout and decreased morale.

Yet, our firefighters still show up every shift with a passion unrivaled by other trades. So, what’s the answer to improving morale? Sometimes it’s as simple as a pat on the back, but leaders must dig deeper and find a way to consistently praise and recognize the extraordinary work that firefighters and EMS personnel provide every day.

Celebrate your people

Most firefighters are astonishingly humble and won’t highlight the amazing work they are doing every day. Sometimes their actions are boldly heroic, or it’s their ingenuity that saves the day (or a life), while other times it’s their ability to immediately treat a cardiac arrest patient and restore a pulse. No matter what the call type may be, firefighters find the appropriate solution.

It is important that fire service leaders have a plan in place to applaud the contributions of their personnel. Whether it’s a heroic act or outstanding EMS care, a monumental administrative effort or an undeniable contribution to the community, fire service leaders must find a way to celebrate the actions of their people. Ask a firefighter if they want recognition and they will always deny the opportunity because it’s in their nature to say, “it’s what we do,” but it’s the supervisor’s obligation to ensure that their subordinate gets the recognition that they deserve.

How to create a recognition program

Organizations should have a Commendation Awards Policy in place to honor the work of their first responders. The policy should be concise and consistent, with processes that address not only how to nominate members for awards but also the requirements to establish an award committee. Here’s a step-by-step approach:

1. Determine your award process. Do nominations start with an immediate supervisor, then through the chain of command – if so, to whom? Does the chief make the decision or is there a committee chairperson? No matter the process, it’s important to have nominations reviewed through an objective and quality assurance process to ensure the accuracy of the outlined scenario. I recommend a committee process.

2. Build an award committee. The chief should appoint one person to chair the committee, and the chair should be empowered to create a committee. It’s important to build a diverse committee from stakeholders in the agency, including a mix of paid/union, civilian and volunteers. Having a diverse group will prove beneficial as varying viewpoints can bring light to a scenario that could otherwise be dismissed as “they were just doing their job.” The committee members should only be presented with redacted scenarios, to dismiss any opportunity for favoritism or bias, and to focus solely on the act(s) to be acknowledged.

3. Determine award criteria. This can be a difficult task, without solid direction and leadership. There will be those who want to recognize every band aid or car fire extinguishment, and then those who don’t want to recognize anything. Clearly there needs to be a balance. While our tiers are under review for updating, over the years, we have developed a six-tiered recognition program. It should be noted that each class may be fire-related or designated as an “Excellence in EMS” recognition as well.

The committee is responsible for determining where nominations fall within the criteria. While an individual may nominate someone for a “gold medal,” the committee may determine the actions fall under a different category, or do not rise to the level of formal recognition at all.

  • Class I – Gold Medal of Valor with red, white and blue uniform ribbon. These cases involve, “extreme personal risk and the highest degree of judgment, zeal, and ingenuity.”
  • Class II – Silver Medal of Valor with blue and white uniform ribbon. These cases involve, “great (but not extreme) personal risk, and/or great judgment, zeal, or ingenuity.”
  • Class III – Bronze Medal of Valor with blue uniform ribbon. These cases involve, “unusual personal risk and/or unusual judgment, zeal, or ingenuity.”
  • Class IV – Certificate of Merit. These cases may involve, “personal risk or unusual duties of a Department member or citizen, and/or a degree of judgment, zeal, or ingenuity not normally required of a Department member or citizen.”
  • Class V – Letter of Commendation or Recognition – for those actions not rising to Class I through IV.
  • Class VI – Unit Citation: The Committee may recommend that an entire crew or unit be honored as a group for valorous, meritorious or extraordinary actions. While this is the highest group award, each individual receives a uniform ribbon to recognize the award.

4. Awards recognition. Determine what your award cycle is – annual, quarterly, monthly, meeting-based, as-needed, etc. We use a combination of opportunities, with the Class I, II and III awards presented at an annual awards banquet, held in concert with all of the County public safety agencies (Police, Sheriff, Corrections, Public Safety Communications, Fire/EMS). Class IV, V and VI awards are presented at meetings and/or as needed, depending on the circumstances and ability to get shifts together. You do want to avoid the perception of “award-fatigue.” Award recognitions should be reserved for those opportunities to recognize the extraordinary among us.

Show their success

While it is not practical to display a full chest of awards on your daily work uniform, agencies should consistently present awards that are easily identifiable on the dress uniform. There are many options for the types of ribbons, but the key is consistency in both purpose and style. For example, all gold medals should be represented by the same ribbon color/style, whether paid, volunteer, fire or EMS.

Individual plaques commemorating the award for wall display are also presented. There are many options, usually steeped in military traditions. For class I, II, and III, we use actual neck medal presentations along with uniform ribbons that are adorned with a gold, silver or bronze colored star on the requisite color ribbon. Class VI unit citations receive a ribbon only, adorned with a white start with tan/while ribbon. If dress uniforms aren’t used in your organizations, the neck medal and plaque may be the best opportunity for your staff to display their awards.

A well-deserved ‘pat on the back’

Publicly acknowledging our firefighters and EMS personnel can and will build morale by showing personnel that they are valued and appreciated, and let’s face it – we need that now more than ever. By presenting awards, we set an example for fellow firefighters that encourages a culture of service, honorability and heroism, while promoting a sense of duty and responsibility.

Write your policy, establish your valor committee, determine your award cycle and how/where a ceremony will be held, order the awards, and witness the pride both on stage and in the audience as the fire chief presents the valor award to your personnel. Although fire service leaders are not usually authorized to give field promotions, time off or raises, this is a positive opportunity to build morale in your department. Whether it’s your probationer or a senior member doing extraordinary work, this is the pat on the back that they deserve.

About the Author

Alan Doubleday retired in 2020 from the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department at the rank of assistant fire chief. In December 2022, Doubleday came out of retirement to take the civilian position of public information director for the department.