Do Nurses Count as First Responders?

When we hear the term ‘first responder,’ we often think initially of police, fire, and EMS, but we know there’s more in the emergency service world. We have dispatch, correctional officers, and military as well. One category that gets tossed back and forth is also nurses. Nurses are certainly trained for emergencies, carry burdens of the job, and work crazy hours most places, but are they first responders?

There’s a yes and a no to that question to be frank, because it vastly depends on their specific role. As nurses work a variety of locations, have a variety of specialties, and even a variety of levels, there’s more to the answer than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ To be clear, nurses rock. Period. So this is not to disqualify them in any way as to their contribution as Very Essential members of society!

Let’s simply look at the ability to respond to an emergency due to training. Imagine you’re walking along and see a stranger collapse suddenly. Let’s say you’re non-medical but you know CPR. You find the person is unresponsive and ask someone to call 911. You proceed to follow all the right protocols in administering CPR until the ambulance arrives and EMS takes over (or the person is revived.) You may have been acting as a first responder, but it doesn’t make you a first responder per se. Some would argue it’s different for a medically licensed person such as a nurse or doctor. Are they acting as first responders in that moment? Yes, yes they absolutely are. Do they qualify as normally being called first responders? Perhaps not.

Do nurses carry similar burdens in their jobs as other first responders? Well, what burdens among first responders are the same? Certain to look at the job between police and fire alone would have us imagine very different scenarios that could lead to trauma. So what’s the same? Both carry a weight of danger to themselves and coworkers from the situations they go into, the people they encounter, and the atmosphere created by overall stress. Ask any nurse in a psych ward and you may hear similar complaints though it looks very different. They all deal with death in some respect at some point. All of them. Most nurses even have crazy long hours with rotating shifts if they work in a hospital.

The immediate difference seems to be the environment. Nurses are in one location and the patients typically come to them (visiting nurses aside). Nurses don’t typically go into a hostile environment uncertain of the safety around them. Dispatchers may stay in dispatch but any of them will tell you that during a high stress call they are every bit mentally there. Even if the patients and/or family are acting hostile, the structure they’re in (hospital, rehab, clinic, etc.) is sound and other staff and possibly authorities can be called. [I pause to mention that this is sometimes untrue and nurses do get abused physically due to staffing shortages or lack of support. So, this doesn’t mean to downplay that at all, but it’s to illustrate the more common scenarios.]

Nurses can be subject to some of the same burdens, such as exposure to disease, patients lashing out physically or verbally, needle sticks, emotional situations (like a pediatric code), and other high stress or traumatic situations. Nurses are also subject to PTSD and therefore need regular support and all the tools to learn to deal with such stress. Telling a family to say goodbye to a loved one or that the time has already passed is something that sticks and doesn’t go away. Holding a hand when no one else is there, being the only human line for a patient who tried to kill themself, watching a meth addict come in for the fourth time in one week, telling a terminal patient everything will be okay, hearing the shriek of a mother who finds her dead child… These are the moments, the burdens, many nurses bear, and the stress and toll they take on a person is not unlike what our first responders carry.

So it seems we’ve flip-flopped in trying to answer this question. Can we answer this yet: are nurses first responders? First responders, by their very name, respond first. So that might be it. They’re the emergency service personnel. This seems to rule out floor nurses, clinic nurses, rehab nurses, and other 9-5ish nurses. Hospice nurses, one could argue, would respond first in some situations, though at that point it’s less emergency and more expected. ICU nurses have the patients brought to them after the emergency. That leaves Emergency Department nurses or ER nurses. There’s a special breed. They never know what comes through the door by ambulance or walk-in. In some areas, cars may speed to the ER entrance, dump a body on the sidewalk, and speed off, leaving their buddy with a gunshot wound in the care of the first person to grab a gurney. A parent may run in screaming with an unresponsive child. A man may walk in complaining of chest pain, then collapse. Be patient if you go to the ER with a cough you’ve had for a week and they don’t take you right away; they probably have something bigger going on.

It seems ER nurses may be the qualifier if one category of nurses were to be called first responders. Again, it’s an opinionated topic to many and rightly so. The bottom line is, whether nurses are considered emergency services or not, they certainly bear a burden and work to put their own needs aside for complete strangers. No matter the hours, no matter the situation, and no matter the stress, the job can be unforgiving to many. So here’s to the nurses and their spouses and families! We support them as well in their sacrifices!