What Do First Responders Do?

What is a First Responder?

According to Homeland Security, first responders are “responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment…” and must take measures to manage emergencies and sustain public health.1 They are the first ones to come into contact with an emergency scene and must do their best to control the situation, be that countering danger, administering medical care, or securing the location.

While there are specialty positions, the sum of first responders consists of EMTs/paramedics, police officers, and firefighters.2

What Qualifications are Necessary?

Training varies based on the first responder’s subset, though all require a high school diploma or a GED.3 It is also essential to know first aid and CPR. While first responders may learn these skills in their designated program, it doesn’t hurt to have these certifications prior to applying. 

  • EMTs/Paramedics must complete a state-approved training program and pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam.4  
  • Police hopefuls go to an academy for basic training, though some departments require additional collegiate schooling. Police programs offer instruction in crisis intervention, emergency response, and safe operation of firearms.
  • Firefighters train within their departments, but some people choose to pursue their associate degree in fire science or related fields.3  While not all have to be licensed, some departments may require NREMT certification.


Each sub-group within the ‘first responder’ umbrella must work to prevent the incident from escalating and should provide whatever medical care they can. EMTs would not put out fires or make arrests, but they can take steps to prevent additional injuries.2 First aid can be administered by any first responder.

In short, a first responder will assess the scene, do what they can to prevent the incident from progressing, and provide medical assistance.

  • EMTs/Paramedics are better trained in performing life-saving measures that extend beyond basic first aid.3 They stabilize patients, transport them, and communicate with hospitals so patient intake goes smoothly.2
  • Police must work to restore order and aid those involved in an incident.2 While some believe this solely means taking down assailants, there is a lot more nuance and discretion necessary when approaching an unknown scene.
  • Firefighters respond to alarms, rescue those trapped in burning buildings, and extinguish fires.3 In medical emergencies, they may also support EMTs.2 There are other scenes, like natural disasters or situations involving hazardous waste, that might also require their services.

Beyond those tasks, there are skills that make for a more effective first responder. Because of the unpredictable nature of the job, first responders must be able to remain calm, communicate and work well with others, and maintain strong situational awareness.4

Every scene is different and requires flexibility, cooperation, and trust in other first responders.

Responding to a Scene

Emergency scenes are so varied it’s impossible to list them all. Some are more rescue-focused, like natural disasters, some are severely time sensitive, like a fire or medical emergency, and others require intensive caution and even negotiators, like a hostage situation. 

When an emergency call comes in, first responders will respond to the given address via the safest, fastest route. This may change based on traffic and weather patterns.5 Once they arrive, they must “size up” the scene and assess potential dangers, nature of the incident, number of patients or victims, and if additional help is required. In certain cases, a first responder may need to make a scene safer by use of flairs, traffic redirection, or debris removal if there is something blocking the road.5

Once the scene is safe, a first responder will offer necessary care to stabilize injured persons. Any first responder can perform first aid but, like all things, who does it will vary within a given emergency.5

From there, all further steps depend on the specifics of the incident.


There is no ‘normal’ day for first responders. Their duties vary as much as the emergency scenes do.  

Training is vital to make sure first responders know how to do their jobs efficiently and effectively because every incident has the potential to be a tragedy. First responders have demanding, but essential, jobs. 

Though the incidents and expectations may change, the common thread between all first responders is their mission: protecting life, property, evidence, and the environment.

If you are interested in a career as a first responder, do your research and make sure you are prepared for what these important jobs entail.

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