What It's Like Being A First Responder

What it’s like being a First Responder.

While you begin reading this in the security of your own home or office, multiple 911 calls are being placed throughout the United States: Callers screaming, “help me, help us, oh my God…” Two million firefighters, law enforcement officers, and ambulance personnel respond to over 240,000,000 calls placed into 911 each year. 324,227,000 and counting Americans rely on their local first responders to answer the call each year; including responses to: 

16,000 Homicides

32,700 Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes

41,000 Suicides

12,000,000 Domestic Violence Cases


Public Perception vs. Reality: Donning a powerful uniform and badge makes first responders look heroic and look stronger than the average 9 to 5er. Reality is, behind the badge, all first responders are human; they have a mother and father, brothers and sisters, spouses and significant others, children, and a community who depends on them to answer to the unimaginable. Reality is, no amount of training makes a first responder prepared for what they will endure mentally or physically throughout a long career. Reality is, our system lets them down when they need help the most. Outside of the uniform, they are just like you, human.

The Power of Veterans vs. First Responders: The word Veteran is the most powerful word in the federal government and quite arguably the most powerful “brand” in America. There is a solidarity across all lines of Veterans who come from different branches, ranks, and functions. There is a knowledge across all Americans who know of their sacrifice and unwavering commitment to our great nation. There is a national healthcare database with unlimited data on Veteran health and a system to tackle these tough issues; there are educational incentives (G.I. Bill), mortgage incentives, research driven healthcare screenings, national best practices, and a federal tax break for employers to help disabled Veterans get a chance in the private sector. The power of unity and data, simply, cannot be underestimated. This is not the case for first responders.

You might think there are more military personnel than first responders; there are actually 1.4 million active duty military compared to over two million first responders. Whether or not someone has seen combat in their military service, they are given the same Veteran benefits when they separate service or retire. This is not the case for first responders; all of them responding on America’s front lines on over 240 million “routine” traumatic calls and increasing incidents of domestic terrorism. 

The collective strength of Veterans comes from a federalized approach; collaborative leadership across ranks and in Congress. The weakness of first responders rests in a piecemeal state by state and local jurisdiction approach coupled with a lack of data and poor labor management relationships that are continuously at odds. 

While Veterans and their macro policy issues are represented by one voice, first responders are fractured and represented by numerous unions, at different rank levels, and with different agendas driven by their members, i.e. revenue base. Furthermore, there is a redundancy in research efforts, formation of non-profit advocacy groups, etc. due to a lack of collaboration across fire, law enforcement, and private ambulance stakeholders. Worse, there is not a national healthcare database tracking the health issues of over two million first responders; the results of not doing this for Veterans would be devastating from a moral and economic factor and it is no different for first responders. 

The Unspoken Crisis: While we know the numbers on Veteran suicide - every hour one Veteran commits suicide - we just began tracking data like this for first responders in the past two years thanks to non-profit advocacy groups, without the help of federal or state leadership, because there was not a “problem” due to the lack of data. 

First responders account for the majority of positions in local towns and counties across America and work in the most dangerous of occupations in the world! There is an aggregated economic cost across all local municipalities in the way, or lack thereof, in addressing first responders’ health and wellness. The status quo is costing all taxpayers a ton of money that could be redirected into national best practices, and proactive strategies to ensure a resilient and healthy workforce of first responders. 

While common sense, each state has their own workers’ compensation laws, their own “benefit” program for injured workers, and few have laws covering first responders presuming their risks are higher than that of the average office worker receiving “care” in the workers’ compensation system. 

Workers’ compensation is an adversarial system with the burden of proof falling on the employee to protect the employer. It is an actuarial system driven by historical data and preservation of the status quo to keep the insurance industry safe, minimizing “risk” to a billion dollar giant. It is a system that does not offer a G.I. Bill, it is a system that does not have a transparent list of doctors who get first responders back to work on time, and it is a system that refuses to award mental health claims for stress because PTSD is hogwash to the old timers sitting on the bench and driving policy in closed door meetings. 

When a first responder is stressed, divorcing at a rate exponentially higher than the public, addicted to pain medications to numb their pain from untreated physical or mental injuries, they are offered by their employer, our local city or county, the same Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as the tax clerk. Worse, when they go in for their three complimentary counseling sessions, they are met by an unqualified counselor who is not trained to assess and treat PTSD, 9 times out of 10, the underlying cause of why they are seeking help in the first place. This band aid measure does not work and does more damage in the long-run when a hero tries to open up for the first time. We would never treat a Veteran this way, so why do we accept this for our first responders? 

How You Can Help Solve This Crisis: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” Kofi Annan. 

Know what it is like to be a first responder, and that despite rhetoric, they do not have near the support that they need and deserve on a local and federal level.

Awareness, Knowledge, and Commitment.

Ask your local elected officials what the cost is for your workers’ compensation system and what they are doing to reduce costs while ensuring your first responders get the care and treatment they deserve instead of letting their cases go unheard and injuries untreated in the current utilization and review process.


Demand data from your local government on first responders’ injuries, number of disability retirements, etc. and know what is going on. Odds are, they may have it or they might take months to produce it as this critical data lives in silos. Ensure that they work with their insurance carriers to produce a list of qualified doctors who have over a 90% success rate in returning first responders to work, so that first responders know who they can trust and go to when injured.

Transparent government.

If you are a first responder and labor union executive, begin collaborating with law enforcement unions, private ambulance company unions, firefighter unions on who is researching and doing what in your state to maximize critical health research funding dollars and to bring together best practices. PTSD is not a Veteran thing, not a firefighter thing, not a law enforcement thing, not an ambulance thing; it is real, impacts us all, and the treatment is the same across all unions and disciplines.

Stop reinventing the wheel and work together.

Work with your elected officials to drive legislation that would allow injured first responders uniformed healthcare under presumptive laws, a college degree covered by state university systems if permanently disabled in the line of duty, the same federal employer tax break that Veterans receive in order to hire some amazing leaders who just need a chance, and effective workers’ compensation systems that get our first responders the care they need when they need it. The greatest hurdle, finding innovative elected officials who are willing to forgo historical data for common sense while figuring out new ways to get this data, spuring innovative approaches to bureaucratic systems, and challenging the elephant that has been in the room for decades.

No Data, No Policy; Step up and get the data needed to make change.

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© 2019 by Drew Aversa