Choosing to become a first responder may feel like the easiest decision you’ve ever made. Especially if you want a rewarding career that enables you to help others, forge lifelong bonds, and never stop learning. But committing to a life of service also means accepting there will indelibly be professional setbacks and personal challenges along the way.
In addition to conceding that copious amounts of financial fortune and fame are highly unlikely outcomes of your pursuits, you also have to know you’re signing up for a roller coaster of constant twists, turns, dips, and drops that will require more courage than you ever thought possible, rather than the romanticized heroics and perpetual gratitude you see on the television dramatizations of the profession. It’s more a relentless and unending test of fortitude and perseverance through countless rough patches to remain strong enough to make it out on the other side, recharged, and ready to go back for more.
Ask anyone whose chosen this path. It’s a long ways removed from full time rainbows and lollipops, but then again, it’s not all doom and gloom either. Most days, for people that choose the path, the rewards do actually outweigh the challenges. But sometimes they don’t. Even so, most agree that regardless of what’s thrown at them, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Because when all is said and done, there is still no better feeling in the world than closing your eyes at night, knowing your actions – even if in just a small way – made a real difference in someone’s life…maybe even saving it.
So with that, let’s dedicate this post to recognizing the real-world struggles first responders face both on and off duty. Here’s a high level rundown of the good, the bad, and the gray areas in between.
First things first, let’s take on the three biggest challenges
Like many service professionals, first responders gamble their own health and safety to perform their jobs. While risk levels vary depending on the role, the number of injuries and physical ailments this community faces are staggering. While firefighters and police officers clearly encounter the highest physical risks, emergency medical providers, and 911 professionals confront equally challenging and unique obstacles that impact their physical health and safety.
Although emergency workers are highly trained and proficient in their skills, accidents and oversights can and do happen. From strains and sprains to a heightened risk of heart problems and disease, emergency workers must work daily to overcome obstacles that threaten their lives and futures. Because of this, these groups must remain vigilant in keeping up with annual check-ups, fitness routines, and wellness regimens.
Yes, nearly all jobs are stressful to some degree, but emergency services is inarguably unique to most. Carrying the weight of thought isolation, missed social connections, and lost time with family, along with the psychological demands of the job, can crush even the strongest souls.
Even worse, there’s no doubt this career can be tough on personal relationships. Besides having to justify frequent absences, it’s often difficult for responders to explain to family and friends why they seem restless, lack patience, or appear distant, disinterested, or disengaged from everyday events. That’s why emergency responders need to surround themselves with people who genuinely care and support them – both on and off the job. While those on the outside may never completely understand or be able to fully relate to the struggles, anyone with close connections should be willing to accept and embrace the inherent and sometimes extreme ups and downs.
Aside from maintaining a constant level of high alert, first responders must be able to think outside the box and switch gears within a moment’s notice. And all while operating on tight timelines and sticking to a strict set of rules and procedures. Making the best decision with the information they have and not allowing second thoughts to hinder the speed and effectiveness of action can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Especially when you stop to consider the outcome can mean the difference between happiness or despair, pain or relief, even life or death.
Even worse, there are obviously limits to what responders can actually control, with the universe of factors they can’t being much larger. Understanding the difference between acceptance and guilt is a difficult skill to master, no matter how many years you’ve been in the game.
Moving on, let’s spotlight some of the benefits that make being a first responder a worthwhile and rewarding career.
Personal pride and the sense of accomplishment from helping others is in itself the ultimate reward. Knowing they were there to support someone during what might be the worst moment in their life can have a powerful effect on a first responder’s sense of self-worth. While not every alarm is an emergency, and not every call will end successfully, every shift represents a unique opportunity for growth and a chance to make a real difference.
Similarly, first responders report personal satisfaction in the sense of having the knowledge and know-how to remain calm, successfully communicate, and lead others through difficult situations. While not all first responders will be experts in every scenario, these fundamental skills will often be celebrated and appreciated in all aspects of life.
Lifelong friendships and professional networking opportunities are some of the priceless perks afforded to first responders. Aside from forging close and enduring bonds with crew members who more closely resemble family, first responders benefit from working with a diverse group of people, each with varying ideas, skillsets, and problem-solving approaches. Because of these connections, first responders are often more capable of seeing outside their own experiences and empathizing with others. Even further, first responders can serve as a vital link between community members and emergency service officials during a crisis or disaster.
Likewise, access to the latest trainings and industry conferences also leaves room for constant growth. Besides being necessary to retain certification, these informative and enriching activities represent regular opportunities to socialize with and learn from well-respected peers and mentors.
Forging friendships and being proud of what you do are intrinsically important, but these purpose-driven rewards don’t actually pay the bills or alleviate retirement concerns. That said, there are few careers outside public service that offer the same iron-clad benefit packages and employment assurances as those provided to emergency responders.
No, the annual wages generally aren’t overly generous, and the overtime hours can be grueling, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For starters, first responders’ health and dental insurance benefits are often top notch. Equally important, working for a public service agency usually means having access to a multitude of investment, educational, and retirement options.
But perhaps the most attractive aspect comes from longstanding job stability. Aside from the fact that as long as emergencies exist, first responders will always be necessary, there are typically protections in place to deter mass layoffs and baseless terminations. We’ve all heard the expression that government is “recession-proof,” which although naively simplified, does point to the stability difference, relative to many roles of their commercial counterparts.
Further still, if emergency responders choose to switch careers, the transferrable skills they’ve acquired through their day-to-day interactions will be both valued and respected in virtually every workplace or industry.
To sum it up, like most jobs, responders must weigh the good with the bad and find a balance they can live with. While the drawbacks may seem overwhelming at times, there are countless advantages to being a first responder. In the end, it’s all a matter of priorities, perspective, and make-up.
Have other thoughts about the challenges and rewards of being a public safety pro? We’d love to hear them.
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