5 Ways to Stay Safe as a First Responder

4 min read

While there are few roles as exciting and rewarding as responding to a disaster situation, serving as a first responder is dangerous and stressful work. First responders often need to manage difficult situations, risk their own health and safety, and make split-second life-and-death decisions. 

For first responders to continue their essential work in caring for others in a disaster, their safety needs to be paramount. Here are four ways first responders can preserve their safety and further care for others. 

1.Pre-Incident Safety Plans

Ensuring your safety as a first responder always begins with a plan for handling any situation. Unfortunately, managing a scene and the surrounding activities during and after a disaster incident is both complicated and fraught with potential hazards. 

By preparing, studying, and adhering to comprehensive disaster management guidelines, first responders can focus on caring for victims. At the same time, pre-incident safety plans ensure resources are adequately managed, care is appropriately performed, and emergency response and recovery personnel are safe. 

Pre-incident safety plans should, at a minimum, cover the following:

  • Management of personnel in an emergency
  • Hazard-specific training
  • Proper use of personal protective equipment
  • Training on emergency guidelines
  • Triage care strategies

All pre-incident safety plans should include policies that address specified concerns, such as chemical or structural hazards, situations like terrorist attacks, or natural disaster relief.

2. Disaster-Specific Training 

A pre-incident safety plan must include information about the types of disasters a first response team may confront. Additionally, the procedure requires proper briefing and training before a team begins any on-the-ground operations. 

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First responders need disaster-specific training to feel confident in their knowledge and expertise before responding to and managing an incident. 

Training, pre-incident preparation, and hands-on drills can’t fully prepare first responders for everything they might face as part of an incident response. However, the more practice and training a responder undergoes, the more equipped they are to serve their community safely and effectively.

3. Keep Your Home Base Clean and Organized

Whether you’re headed back to the fire station or the police department, it’s important that you perform regular maintenance checks on your equipment and keep your space clean. Hazards don’t just exist in the outside world. But as busy first responders, it can be difficult to remember the simple things (like taking care of the dishes or spills). If keeping up with the space is difficult, consider outsourcing responsibilities to professionals who specialize in general cleaning services.

4. OSHA Personal Protective Equipment

Many emergencies call for first responders to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure their safety while responding to terrorism events, natural disasters, biological hazards, and other incidents. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines four levels of emergency-response types of PPE, with the most protective gear classified as level A and the least protective as level D. 

These levels directly correspond to the degree of respiratory and skin protection a worker may need when responding to a particular disaster. 

In addition to OSHA’s PPE guidance, the U.S. Military also provides guidance for emergency responders who may require body armor when responding to an event. The military direction uses a similar system, broken into three levels: 

  • Level 1: A vest or plate carrier (PC) and soft armor
  • Level 2: A vest or PC and front and back hard armor plates
  • Level 3: A vest or PC and front, back, and side hard armor plates
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As part of first responder training, workers should understand the situations requiring PPE and the correct levels demanded by the circumstances. They should also completely understand the procedures necessary to reduce exposure to dangers, regardless of the level of PPE required.

5. Stay Mindful of Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress

Burnout and secondary traumatic stress are two of the most harmful elements of a first responder’s job. In disaster situations, the number of responders is often limited, and those on the scene are quickly overtaxed, leading to exhaustion and distress and, subsequently, poor decision-making, illness, or injury.

Some of the precautions first responders can take to avoid burnout and secondary traumatic stress include:

  • Limiting shifts to 12 hours
  • Working in teams or reducing the time spent working alone
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and getting proper rest and exercise
  • Avoiding or restricting the use of caffeine or alcohol

Additionally, first responders should check in on each other during and after an incident response. Developing a buddy system allows responders to have a teammate to check in with, monitor, share supplies, and discuss plans and courses of action. 

First responders serve a critical role in their communities, facing dangerous, difficult situations and putting themselves at risk to help others. Prioritizing the health and safety of first responders allows them to continue to serve this essential role. 

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