Our society loves heroes. We have an insatiable appetite for superhero movies. “The hero’s journey” is used as a metaphor to make sense of our lives. When a first responder performs an act of bravery, we love to call them heroes. Please don’t.
Why? Calling someone a hero is more about your need to express astonishment at their self-control and bravery than it is about understanding and caring for their emotions. First responders train hard to be prepared for emergencies. The discipline required to remain focused and calm in extreme situations is staggering. It is also part of their jobs. And while we want to acknowledge their extraordinary accomplishments, it often makes first responders uncomfortable when we do.
Being called a hero separates and elevates the hero or heroine from co-workers and from society. It is an added emotional weight because being a hero comes with expectations, spoken or unspoken, that one should always act heroically. This is an impossible task for any human being.
I’ve learned by talking with many first responders that while agencies, organizations, and the public love awards ceremonies, they loathe them. I was privileged to attend such a ceremony and the discomfort of many of the recipients was unmistakable. In their eyes. they were just doing their jobs and being singled out was an uncomfortable experience.
So how should a first responder who put their life on the line for us be acknowledged by others, especially after a critical incident? I posed this question to several first responders and here are their responses:
Last shift I asked a fire company to meet me at a local coffee house to recognize two of their team members for their ten years of service. While we were there a 6-year-old girl and her parents approached us with a thank you card that the young girl had just made for us. A simple thank you from the public is amazing and appreciated. No plaque or certificate will come close to meeting the level of trust and respect given to us by our citizens.A Firefighter
Simply, “Thank you”. It shows your appreciation for what I do, or what it is you understand me to do, and that you trust I am prepared to do my job for you; and it motivates me to live up to your expectations. It doesn’t need to be a well phrased, nuanced understanding of my role in society; I don’t expect that of anyone who doesn’t do my work.
My personal opinion is that first responders absolutely want acknowledgment for their actions, however, they fear judgment and criticism from others for receiving such acknowledgment. Many in the community are receptive and want to be a part of it, but others begin by throwing stones at recognizing the tremendous work done and the award becomes heavy with criticism.A Paramedic
Some first responders feel like it’s their job but they still want to know others are paying attention and appreciate what they do. Many want the acknowledgment but don’t want to stand on a stage to receive it. They also won’t admit that the award has meaning because they are often subject to comments and criticism from their own peers when they receive the award. Part of the discomfort is feeling singled out when others are not receiving acknowledgment for their great efforts.A Law Enforcement Officer
We live in communities in which crime and wrongs against others are inevitably going to be committed. These communities need first responders help in ensuring their quality of life is as good and safe as possible. They are protected by men and women (Law, Fire, EMS, Dispatch) who through compassion, and dedication, provide a service by caring. This service may include a visible presence, a greeting, an understanding, support, and sadly at times an enforcement action and yes dealing with tragic events.
There is so much that goes on in the daily lives of those who have chosen a profession as a first responder. It comes with hard work, dedication, and a passion in providing a service to others. They are peacemakers and helpers. First responders use words such as Service, Pride, and Professionalism. They are not looking for medals or accolades, but appreciate knowing they are making a difference, their service welcomed, and valued. A simple smile in return, a “thank you” when appropriate, keeps first responders coming back for more.Head of a First Responder Agency