What’s up with the emphasis on police, fire, and emergency medical being “First Responders?” While their help is appreciated enough by the community that we’re willing to fork out significant change for their services, they are almost always not the first people to the scene of an accident, crime, fire, or medical emergency. That distinction almost always belongs to the people who called them. Obviously, ordinary citizens responded first, assessed the situation, offered help where they could, and if the situation was beyond their training or abilities, they called 9-1-1.
Speaking of 9-1-1, its official name is the “Emergency Telephone Number for the North American Numbering Plan.” It includes the phrase, “can send emergency responders to the caller’s location in an emergency.” It is also referred to as “the national emergency number for the United States,” and that “calling this single number provides a caller access to police, fire, and ambulance services.” It goes on to say that the number has come to be known as a “common public-safety answer point (PSAP).” Enhanced 911 automatically gives the dispatcher the caller’s location, if available. (Source)
Do you see the term “first responder” in there, anywhere? I don’t.
We used to call police, fire, and rescue, well, “Police, Fire, and Rescue.” Around the time EMERGENCY! came on the air in 1972, the term “Emergency Services” become more common, and “Rescue” was changed to “Paramedics.” Now, watching Chicago Fire, I observe their firehouse is broken down into three sections, including the Firefighters of Truck 81, the Rescue Squad of Squad 3, and the Paramedics of Ambulance 61.
Still no “First Responder,” though. Indeed, almost each and every scene of both the 1972 and 2006 shows begins with regular people who were actually at the scene, first, some of whom provided initial assistance. For some reason, the writers, directors, and producers, and possibly the technical advisors, thought it would be cute to make the real first responders look like idiots. Then, after some years passed, they began calling themselves “first responders” as if the the actual first responders didn’t even exist. Seriously? Who do you think placed the 9-1-1 call?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary says the first known use of the term “first responder” occurred all the way back in 1970. Apparently, it took decades for the term to catch on.
The term first responder is defined in U.S. Homeland Security Presidential Directive, HSPD-8, which reads:
The term “first responder” refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers as defined in section 2 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. § 101), as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.
Oh. So it does have an official definition. So, does the official U.S. definition include people like you and I who first come across a situation requiring immediate assistance? Why, yes! It does! In fact, 6 U.S. Code § 101 – Definitions, (6) reads: “The term “emergency response providers” includes Federal, State, and local governmental and nongovernmental emergency public safety, fire, law enforcement, emergency response, emergency medical (including hospital emergency facilities), and related personnel, agencies, and authorities.”
So when did people start calling emergency response providers “first responders?” If you thought, “Hollywood,” you’d be correct. “First Responders” was the name of the Season 1, Episode 1 pilot for the TV show, “The Unit,” first aired in 2006. Only then did the term come into common use in place of “emergency response providers.” The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) of the United States was created under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (MCTRJCA) as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration(NTIA). The purpose of FirstNet is to establish, operate, and maintain an interoperable public safety broadband network.
Let’s go back to the official definition:
U.S. Homeland Security Presidential Directive, HSPD-8, which reads:
The term “first responder” refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers
So you see, ANYONE who is first on the scene can be a “first responder,” provided they act in a manner consistent with “the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment.”
Let’s take me, for example, but first, a Disclaimer: NEVER TRY THIS AT HOME!
In 1991, I heard and saw my neighbors exit their apartment screaming as a roiling cloud of black smoke followed them. I was outside before they were halfway down the stairs, and asked, “What’s burning?” “Kitchen,” one answered. The other said, “Grease!”
I pulled the fire alarm, grabbed the CO2 extinguisher from it’s mount, took a couple lungfuls of air, and entered the apartment. As the burner control was very near the flames, the FIRST thing I did was cover the pot of burning grease with its lid. No oxygen, no flame. Next, I turned off the burner. I spied two oven mitts, put down the CO2 bottle, donned the mitts, and very carefully moved the grease to a cool eye. I then exited the apartment with the CO2 bottle to catch my breath.
The apartment manager had heard the alarm, was walking up, and said, “Fire Department is on it’s way!” I held up my still-mitted hand waving acknowledgement, and reentered the apartment, holding my breath once again. Even though the roiling black smoke was rapidly clearing, a lighter-colored smoke was coming from above the range. The cabinets above the range hood had caught fire! I hit them with a couple of short shots from the fire extinguisher, and waited. When they flamed up again, I hit them with a much longer shot, long enough to cool off the wood and penetrate into whatever cracks were there.
I ran out of breath and exited the apartment a second time. A fireman with his own CO2 bottle was walking up the stairs. I said, “Grease fire, it’s out. Fire penetrated the cabinets above.” He proceeded inside.
I was the first responder, not the fire department. In fact, it was they who said had I not put the fire out when I did, the entire apartment building would have been engulfed in flames and destroyed due to the source of the fire and where it had begun to spread. They said that those two minutes made all the difference in the world.
I’m going to show you two videos which demonstrate just how fast fires can spread. In the first video, the Christmas tree was acting just like the burning pot of grease, a hot ignition source which rapidly caught everything else on fire.
The second video clearly shows that even without a hot ignition source such as a dry Christmas tree or boiling and on-fire pot of grease, interior fires can spread very rapidly.
The fire department said it took them just a few seconds over three minutes from the time I pulled the fire alarm to the time they arrived. If I, as a first responder, had not pulled the fire alarm, the entire apartment building would have been totally destroyed. Even after pulling the fire alarm, they said if I had not put out both the grease fire as well as the fire where it had begin burning up behind the cabinet, there would have been very little they could have done to save the building.
We the People are the First Responders. We’re the first ones on the scene. We’re the ones who call for backup (9-1-1), help others to safety, administer first aid, and yes, put out fires.
A further word about the DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME disclaimer: At the time of the fire, I had been trained in multiple jobs how to fight fires, including as a lifeguard/pool manager, camp counselor, and U.S. Air Force aircrewman. I avoided injury by being careful and following my training.
Finally, here’s what the kitchen fire actually looked like (without someone dumping a cup of water into the boiling, on-fire grease):
In 50+ years of life, there have been roughly a dozen times where I, as the first responder, have saved life, limb, and property, from damage or destruction. I am not saying this to pat myself on the back. I am saying this to clarify that emergency response providers such as police, fire, and rescue should not refer to themselves as “first responders” unless they truly are the first ones on the scene.
This Is Reality