What Is The Role Of A First Responder?

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Have you ever wondered what it takes to be first on the scene in the event of an emergency? Well, that’s what the job as a first responder is all about and they undertake a wide range of tasks to ensure satisfactory outcomes to a variety of emergencies. Here’s what you need to know about them:

The role of a First Responder is to respond and provide assistance to those emergency situations. First responders can be employed as firefighters, police officers, paramedics, EMTs, or another specialty position. They perform different tasks, but they all work to help those in need.

First responders are important when you need them. They can really make a difference in the outcome of many emergencies that occur. Let’s take a look at first responders and what they do.

Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.

Also read: Does 911 Cost Money? The Price of Emergency Calls

What Is A First Responder?

Houston fire engine

In the United States, a first responder is specifically defined by the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-8). It says,

“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 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.”

However, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to try and keep it within the context of police, fire, and EMT/EMS responses. 

In this instance, a first responder is best thought of as the first person to reach a scene of an incident and to have specific responsibilities, usually with respect to medical training, to carry out when they are there.

So, police, EMTs/EMS, and firefighters, for example, might all be required to provide CPR or first aid. While a police officer might also need to make an arrest or make sure that a crime scene is safeguarded from tampering.

An EMT/EMS worker, on the other hand, might carry out some basic lifesaving work and continue such work on the way to a hospital or other treatment facility.

Whereas a firefighter might have to deal with a range of emergency situations and need to secure the scene, prioritize action, take action to tackle fires, provide EMS (Emergency Medical) services, and more. 

Also read: Why Firefighters Are So Important For The Community

What Qualifications Do They Need?

In general, all three services need a similar level of qualification to become a first responder. Before entering the service, you will be required to have a High School Diploma and they may need some basic medical training (CPR, first aid, EMT, etc.). 

Then, in addition, police officers and firefighters will be expected to attend a police or fire academy, which are specific custom training programs designed to develop their capabilities in their roles.

Read this for more info: Fire Academy vs. Police Academy: Which is Harder?

This does not preclude them from undertaking additional post-secondary training such as degrees or paramedic certification, however, such training is not mandatory.

In contrast, EMT/EMS roles tend to rely on post-secondary training to provide the expertise required from an EMT-basic course all the way through to full qualification as a paramedic. 

Police officers are not required to be licensed under law. Firefighters are not licensed either but they may be required to be licensed by the NREMT to a minimum standard of EMT-basic by their department.

EMT/EMS will also be certified in CPR and the vast majority will also be licensed to conduct their work by the NREMT.


Each of these groups of first responders has a different set of basic responsibilities as follows:

  • Police officers – the first objective for the police is to restore order at the incident and this may include securing the scene and detaining individuals or getting information from witnesses. They may be required to offer basic CPR or first aid if required.
  • EMT/Paramedics – their primary objective is to offer first aid to stabilize a patient enough to transport them to a treatment center n(hospital). They will transport such patients (usually in an ambulance) and liaise with treatment centers to ensure they are prepared to deal with the patients.
  • Firefighters – obviously responding to fires is a firefighter’s top priority, but many firefighters are also qualified EMTs and Paramedics and they may have similar duties on medical calls. If there is a fire, they are expected to manage and extinguish the fire and to help protect or rescue any individuals trapped or injured by the fire.

Thus, while there is a heavy amount of overlap between first responder responsibilities, there is also a need for separate services with different focuses. 

Also read: Do Firefighters Have to Be Paramedics or EMTs?

What Do First Responders Do?

NYPD police car

The Homeland Security Act, 2002, is very clear about this.

A first responder is someone who is present during the early part of an emergency response and their job is to protect lives (both their own and that of others), evidence, property, and/or the environment in which the incident is taking place.

Other forms of first responders that we haven’t touched on might include utility workers and public health professionals. 

What ought to be clear by now is that there are no fixed tasks for first responders. They are trained to respond to an incident and then assess what is taking place before deciding what to focus their efforts on. They may also call for additional help. 

For example, if a police officer arrives at a call for domestic abuse to find that the house is on fire, they will need assistance from the fire department. They don’t suddenly become equipped to tackle the blaze because they were first on the scene. 

First responders work together using their individual training, expertise and equipment to manage whatever emergencies they are faced with.

Where Do They Work?

The most popular job for first responders is police work.

In 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 660,000 first responders worked for the police or sheriff’s department in the USA. Whereas just over 320,000 worked for fire departments and barely more than 250,000 worked as a paramedic of an EMT.

This means that the ultimate employer of the majority of first responders is local government and particularly for police and firefighters.

EMTs tend to work for ambulance services, though some may also work directly for hospitals or even for local government agencies. 

What Training Do They Have?

FDNY ambulance

We touched on this at the beginning of the article, but every first responder must have a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. The majority of first responders and nearly every firefighter will be required to get an EMT-basic level certification too. 

In some instances, the police academy may handle EMT training or its equivalent, but they often outsource this to nearby community colleges because its’ more practical to do so. The majority of police training is focused on preventing crime and ensuring that public order is preserved. 

While there is no need for a degree to enter the police force, more and more departments are looking for either college credits or a degree in new recruits.

A firefighter will not need a degree to enter the fire academy but will need to come with their own EMT qualification to enter. They may find a degree useful if seeking to specialize or to climb the ranks, though. 

Firefighters spend nearly as much time (or perhaps more time) doing EMT work now as they do fighting fires and their pre-service training is as important as the fire academy. The fire academy is designed to ensure that they can effectively fight fires. 

EMT/EMS workers tend to opt for EMT programs at colleges to get their qualifications and these tend to be highly practical programs designed to give them the skills to handle real-world medical emergencies. 

Also read: How Hard is the Fire Academy? Are You Ready?


What is the role of a first responder? As you can see, the exact duties of a first responder change from incident to incident, from scene to scene, but their core responsibilities of protecting life, property, evidence and the environment do not change, they just adapt to the circumstances that they find themselves in.

A first responder’s role is a vital part of the emergency response and it can contribute to saving lives and adding substantial value to the public perception of emergency services. The job is hard and highly skilled, but it brings real benefits and will win you the respect of those around you, when done well. 

Related Articles:

Why Do Firefighters Go to Medical Calls?

How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete Guide

Do You Get Paid As A Volunteer Firefighter?

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