Responding First

1stbadgeOnce again, with the marathon bombings in Boston, we heard a term that didn’t exist when I was growing up: first responder. The blogosphere hums with disdain for coinages of the last 50 years, so I’d like to take a moment, in the midst of our grief and bewilderment at the bombings themselves, to celebrate this one.

A first responder, as we all vaguely know by now, is someone with a degree of training who arrives first on the scene of a disaster. These people might be medical personnel trained in emergency management, firefighters, law enforcement officers, bodyguards, lifeguards, and so on. In one sense, the term first responder is handy simply because it lumps all these people together and doesn’t rely on initials. But more to the point, it both designates what they really do—respond first—and suggests a level of preparedness that none of the job descriptions otherwise provides. That is, we know a firefighter fights fires, but all professional firefighters are also trained in providing emergency medical help and in rescue operations. The term puts the emphasis where it belongs, in this era of unexpected catastrophe—on the ability to react quickly and appropriately while the rest of us stand by dumbfounded and terrified.

A Google Ngram shows the term as nonexistent before 1978, when Jeff Clawson, an M.D. and ambulance driver at the time, came up with the idea for the Medical Priority Dispatch System. Still in the leadership of the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, Dr. Clawson conceived a set of protocols for what he called “the first first responders,” folks who answered at 911 and other emergency numbers. He came up with the “medical recipe cards” in his basement and had trouble convincing communities to adopt them. The attendants who answered phones 24/7 were seen, then, as phone operators or clerks. Eventually, as Dr. Clawson’s system caught fire, they became the front line for emergency response, “like air traffic controllers,” according to Dr. Clawson. The questions they ask callers and the directions they give often mean the difference between life and death.

And if a switchboard operator, properly trained, can become a first responder, so can others. Since Clawson coined the term, programs in Certified First Responder Training have cropped up all over the country. In 1979 the Department of Transportation began First Responder training to fill the gap between those trained for first-aid response and those with full EMT training. After the World Trade Center attacks, the term skyrocketed in usage. People who complete First Responder training now range from taxi drivers to camp counselors. The most poignant example of a first responder, in the recent tragedy, was Carlos Arredondo, a Red Cross-trained first responder who leapt into the carnage and tied tourniquets on Jeff Bauman, a grievously wounded spectator, before hustling up a wheelchair and getting him to an ambulance in time to save his life (and, incidentally, to enable Bauman later to identify one of the perpetrators of the bombing). A Costa Rican immigrant who lost his oldest son in Iraq, who once set himself on fire with grief, who lost his second son to suicide in the wake of that first loss, Arredondo was watching a runner who had dedicated his race to Arredondo’s son. Like so many others, he ran toward, and not away from, the danger, because he wanted to help and he knew that, with his training, he might be able to.

I salute Carlos Arredondo, and all the others who, whether it’s required for their jobs or not, seek out the training that prepares them for the front lines, which can be anywhere these days. Call me sentimental, but I mouth the term first responder and get a little choked up. Its root is the same as the obsolete verb to spond, to promise or pledge—and whatever else those individuals do when they walk into the fire, into the flood, into the shrapnel, they are fulfilling a pledge both ancient and urgent. Thank you, Dr. Clawson, for coining the word, and thanks to all who, visibly or invisibly, carry its badge.

Return to Top