The Role of First Responders in Rural Emergency Preparedness and Response
First responders are often the first to arrive to the scene of an emergency or disaster. They provide services
essential to the response and the community. Another term that refers to first responders is emergency
response providers. The major groups of first responders include emergency medical services (EMS)
personnel, firefighters, and police officers. Sometimes, healthcare providers, including physicians and nurses,
respond to emergencies and disasters. First responders are a critical component of preparing for, responding to,
and recovering from a disaster.
During the planning phase, it is important to consider and prepare for first responder needs related to
training, staffing and volunteers, and first responder preparedness.
Identifying first responders and ensuring they complete proper training is essential during the planning phase.
Training and education for first responders include formal training and certifications as well as familiarity
with emergency response protocols, including communication processes and specific responsibilities.
Different groups of first responders will be better suited to respond to certain kinds of emergencies. For
example, firefighters might be best suited to respond to a wildfire, while healthcare workers might be better
suited to respond to a viral outbreak. First responders must receive the appropriate training that corresponds
to their role and skills. However, in rural areas, the number of first responders available is limited, which
means that first responders might have to respond to emergencies that are outside of their jurisdiction and
scope of practice. Therefore, first responders should have a general understanding of the possible types of
emergencies and disasters that are likely to happen in their community and surrounding areas as well as the
immediate priorities to be addressed in response efforts. The Center for Rural Development's Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium offers trainings and resources
for rural and tribal emergency responders.
First responders are critical to response efforts, and they play an important role in ensuring the response is
equitable and culturally responsive. Training for first responders should include learning how to be culturally
competent during disaster response. The Cultural
Competency Curriculum for Disaster Preparedness and Crisis Response is a free e-learning course offered
by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for first responders and others.
Staffing and Volunteers
In rural communities, community members often volunteer to be first responders. These volunteer first responders
may need additional training since being a first responder is not their primary occupation. At the same time,
they may have limited time to complete extensive training. For more information about community volunteers, see
Community Engagement and
Volunteer Management for Emergency Preparedness and Response.
Some rural communities may need to develop plans in anticipation of not having first responders. Specifically,
the number of first responders in tribal communities is very limited. In these cases, it is important to be
aware of resources that are available and plan a response that accounts for a lack of first responders. First
responder agencies can develop partnerships with schools, faith-based organizations, local industry, and
individuals with transferrable skills to aid in response efforts. Additionally, first responders who have
retired or are no longer active may be able to fill in staffing gaps.
First Responder Preparedness
It is important that individual first responders and their families are prepared for a response. Steps they can
take to minimize stress in anticipation of a disaster include:
Build an emergency supply kit
Make a family emergency plan
Be informed about the kinds of emergencies they can be called to and teach family members about any
protective actions they should take
Determine alternate caregivers for children, if parents and guardians are actively responding to a
Determine alternate care for older adults, if adult caregivers are actively responding to or affected by a
Prepare for populations with disabilities, mobility challenges, medical needs, social needs, and limited
During the response phase, it is crucial to ensure personal safety of first responders. Special attention should
be given to communication processes, mental health, access to protective equipment and first
responder safety through a buddy system. Many EMS providers in rural areas are volunteers, who may not have
access to health insurance through their jurisdiction. The lack of health insurance may limit access to
healthcare services or workers compensation coverage for issues related to their volunteer EMS roles. It is
important that rural communities consider these rural
EMS characteristics and challenges. For detailed information on rural EMS services, see, the Rural Emergency Medical Services
(EMS) and Trauma topic guide.
Effective communication and coordination are essential to first responder safety and response efforts. First
responders should have an up-to-date contact list, including supervisors, response partners, and other first
responders, and established methods of communication, such as radio, cellphone, and more. Communication methods
will vary depending on the emergency. Sometimes, communication may not be possible, and first responder agencies
will need to plan for this as well. For more information on communication, see
Public Safety and Crisis Communication in an
Emergency or Disaster.
During a response, first responders may need to adapt to an increased workload and the changing environment
surrounding the emergency or disaster. During the COVID-19 pandemic, first responders adjusted operations to
meet new requirements. For example, many fire departments reassigned non-emergency personnel to field
operations, volunteers were recruited to keep up with the demand for EMS, and first response vehicles were
Camaraderie with other responders, good leadership, and social support are protective factors for first
responders. During a response, first responders face the most risk factors, including proximity to and length of
exposure to the disaster, dealing with serious injuries and deaths, becoming emotionally involved, poor support
from leadership and lack of interagency collaboration, not having enough information, low perceived safety, and
being injured mentally or physically while on the job. It is crucial to reduce mental health risk to first
responders, and strategies like developing clear communication processes, having a buddy system, and assessing
the team's welfare can help.
First responders' mental health is disproportionately affected during and following a disaster since they are on
the front lines. According to the 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Supplemental Research Bulletin, First
Responders: Behavioral Health Concerns, Emergency Response, and Trauma, 30% of first responders develop
behavioral health conditions, including depression, PTSD, substance use, and suicide/suicidal ideation.
Considerations for first responder mental health should be acknowledged during all phases of emergency
Pre-disaster risk factors include being mentally or physically unfit to perform response duties, inadequate
training, unrealistic expectations from leadership, and stressful life events. A longer duration of employment,
specialized training, resilience, and assurance of personal and team capabilities were all found as protective
factors. Interventions to reduce behavioral health risk include participation of first responders in the
development of response plans, providing enough information regarding disasters and the necessary training, and
informing first responders of the stress they may face during response.
During the recovery phase, it is especially important to promote protective factors such as professional mental
healthcare and peer support and to reduce risk factors, such as watching more than four hours of television,
avoidant coping, and not receiving appreciation for response efforts.
Resources to Learn More
COVID-19 Information for the
First Responder Community
Provides links to reliable resources for first responders to inform and guide them when conducting COVID-19
response activities to ensure safe and efficient practices.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
First Responders and Disaster Responders Resource
Offers resources and online trainings to learn more about signs of stress and stress management in first
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
for First Responders on Maintaining Operational Capabilities During a Pandemic
Identifies ways to adjust operations in order to maintain readiness and response. Shares methods for local
planning and provides planning tools and resources.
Organization(s): U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Department Resources for Local Officials
Offers information, planning resources, and funding and program assistance for rural fire departments.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)