Stop Saying First Responders “Knew What They Signed Up For”

Boston Police, Fire, and EMS manage the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013 (AP Photo)

I want to address something that I’ve been seeing on social media a lot lately and it’s really been irritating me. It feels like a weight on my shoulders that I’ve got to lift off by speaking on it. Whenever the topic of first responders comes up, (whether it be Fire/EMS or Police) someone inevitably utters the phrase “they knew what they signed up for”. Let me start off by saying that my response to that is not an opinion, it’s coming from nearly a decade as a first responder both as a firefighter and an EMT; you know, someone who “knew what they were signing up for”. If you have used this phrase, you are being extremely ignorant.

The reason I’m addressing this on behalf of all first responders including police is because there are more similarities in the first steps of becoming police officer and firefighter than there are differences. The biggest step is the first one: literally saying to yourself, this is something I’m seriously contemplating doing. People who have made the decision to become a firefighter, medic, or police officer go through pretty much the same initial steps. This often includes getting in touch with someone who is already in the field and asking what to do first. Then you fill out a mountain of paperwork including transcripts and documents from years in your past, just to send in your initial application. Then you go through a seemingly endless ‘hurry up and wait’ routine of qualifying hurdles. Some people, like I did, put themselves through specialized training like EMT school or a criminal justice degree before even applying to agencies.

There are certainly differences in the hiring processes of the different branches of first responders, but the one thing that is similar across the board is that no police, fire, or EMS candidate will ever truly know everything they’ve signed up for till they’re knee deep in it. Yes, it is obviously common knowledge that when you choose that profession that you are going to experience dangerous and difficult situations. But there is no way to truly instill in a candidate that when you “sign up” for the job, your life is going to be changed forever. No one truly explains to you the in-depth details of how it will feel to spend years witnessing suffering, death, danger, and stress on levels that very few people will ever understand. No one truly explains to you what it will feel like to be in constant situations where you will literally have to make split-seconds that can either save your life or end it. No one explains to you how isolated you might feel to no longer be able to relate to your friends and family outside work because you have experienced these things and they have not. No one explains to you how being desensitized to the things you’ve seen may impact your ability to show empathy on and off the job. No one explains to you the strain it may put on your relationship with your spouse or partner because you were never trained on how to talk about what you’ve experienced so instead you let the grief and tension build up; and finally, no one explains to you what it will feel like when laypeople chalk all that up to “they knew what they signed up for”.

Saying something like that is an uppity, dismissive, and intellectually lazy way of avoiding having to understand the viewpoint of someone other than yourself. So, the next time you find yourself saying that, ask yourself, do I actually know a first responder who’s experienced something similar to what I’m commenting on? Have I tried to reach out to them and educate myself on what it’s like to be in that specific situation and why that police officer or firefighter did what they did that I’m criticizing them about? Do I REALLY even care if what I’m saying is based on real-life knowledge explained to me by someone who’s experienced it? If you literally can’t answer yes to any of those questions, maybe you need to re-think how you approach this topic.

Police, Fire, and EMS are going to make mistakes on the job. There will even be ones who intentionally do what they’re not supposed to do. As long as it’s humans who are doing the job, that’s always going to be the case; and pointing that out is not an excuse it’s a reason. They should be held accountable for those actions too. I truly believe part of the reason there is such a disconnect between the public and first responders including law enforcement is not JUST because of a lack of trust due to those who abuse their authority, there is also a lack of communication and desire for knowledge on the part of the public to truly understand what life is like for people who choose to do these professions. These are real people with valid fears and emotions, many of whom are trying to carry out their job correctly while simultaneously dealing with side effects of PTSD built up after years on the job.

This post is not meant to garner sympathy or praise for first responders; during my career I got plenty of it and was grateful for every bit of thanks I received. The truth is, first responders do know at a basic level that they’re signing up for a dangerous and daunting task, and they make that first step anyways. However, the point here is not whether or not they know what they’re getting themselves in to, but that they often don’t foresee how their experiences will affect them. This post is meant to spark a conversation and enlighten some people. So let’s get a dialogue started. If you or a loved one is a first responder or you are a member of the public who cares about educating yourself or other people about the seldom understood subculture of first responders, this post is is public and so is the comment section. Share it, along with your thoughts, experiences, or questions.