When we change policing, let’s change this word

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Those under 20 will be surprised to learn of a world without first responders — a world, that is, where we spoke of “police officers” and “firefighters,” naming public servants by their jobs. Because it is everywhere now, the term “first responders” makes it hard to imagine living without it. But if having a general term such as this makes life easier, it’s time to acknowledge what we give up in the bargain.

One problem with the term “first responders” is that it lends a single identity to people who do very different things. Implying that their jobs are the same has blurred the edges of the specific work we ask our public servants to do: What, precisely, do we require of our police officers? Our firefighters? Our EMTs? Although all these individuals will assist us at the scene of an accident, or in a disaster, most of their days are spent doing other tasks. We need the ability to talk about that clearly if we’re to continue to have effective relationships with them.

The term “first responder” became common in the U.S. only during this century, because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fewer than 10 days after the attacks it was still a new concept to some in Washington. You can see this in the different ways they typed it out. A House resolution on Sept. 20, 2001, for example, used quotation marks for an unusual word: INTRODUCTION OF CONCURRENT RESOLUTION FOR THE “FIRST RESPONDERS” INJURED AT THE WTC, PENTAGON, AND IN PENNSYLVANIA. Although a Senate version at the same time used no quotation marks, for the next decade both Presidents Bush and Obama would speak from remarks that signaled the term’s ongoing novelty by means of a hyphen: “first-responders.” Like “homeland,” it was a new term for a frightened new era. 

Before 1980, newspapers used the term “first responders” literally, referring to the first people who arrived on site at an emergency. Often these were volunteers, such as the Brookline [N.H.] Volunteer First Responders Association in 1977 who financed an ambulance and purchased uniforms to wear while they served their community. After Sept. 11, 2001, in contrast, the term “first responders” became professionalized, implicitly diminishing the role of volunteers. By 2017, presidential remarks on one of our many mass shootings  — the horrific Las Vegas tragedy — praised “civilian rescuers” as a category separate from both first responders and law enforcement officers. As you can see in the choice of “civilian” in this address, the president proposed a hierarchy of authority.

For the record, all of those commended in Las Vegas were civilians, although more and more the term “first responders” seems to confer a military-like distance from the Americans these public servants are employed to protect. It is crucial to remember that police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel are not soldiers, but workers. 

And to be clear, they do very important work. Most Americans are glad we have public servants trained and willing to help others in specific ways, often in the face of danger. We have a moral and financial obligation to recognize the hardships they confront. So why should we think about words during a pandemic? Why pause over this term in particular?

For its part, the pandemic has demonstrated that “first responders” is too heroic a concept. It doesn’t account for the grocery store clerks, automobile mechanics, nurses, plumbers, internet technicians, teachers, sanitation and utility employees, lab technicians, child care providers, delivery personnel, truck drivers, construction workers, physicians, and the host of other people whose work is vital to the continuance of our society. Life is full of quiet heroism, and it is the dedication, sacrifice and everyday responses of our fellow citizens that help America thrive.

Like the general public after 9/11, politicians and journalists have accepted the convenience of the term “first responders.” But that convenience has come at a cost: the creation of a special but indistinct class of public servant. I believe we need to stop using the term so indiscriminately. I suggest that it’s time to turn back the clock to before these two decades of fear, time to return to terms such as “police officer” and “firefighter.” For only by doing so can we give the specific credit that those jobs deserve. And only by doing so can we demand the specific responsibilities of those in them.

Douglas S. Bruster is the Mody C. Boatright Regents Professor of American and English Literature and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

Tags Emergency medical responders Firefighters first responder Police police reform

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