The Spirit of First Responders


When I think of 9/11, I think of many things. I remember where I was when I first heard about the attacks—walking to my 8 o’clock class with Dr. William Varner at The Master’s College on the West Coast. I remember the striking images playing out on television. And I remember the first responders.

I still own a navy-blue hat with FDNY on the front and “In Memory 9-11” on the back. The courage and the footage and the stories of those first responders, from multiple branches of public service, are burned into the psyche of all who witnessed the events.

I recently got to see another bevy of first responders in action here in Houston as every conceivable group rolled into town in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Texan spirit was on full display, as well, a civilian horde instinctively moving toward crisis instead of backing away.

As I continue trying to serve our people at BridgePoint the best I can in our ongoing recovery efforts, I’m learning a lot about jumping in while things are messy. I’m not the best at it, but I’m growing. Here are six things I’m learning from the first ones in.

1. They don’t wait. First responders, by definition, don’t wait. They’re not foolhardy, but they don’t wait. So many of us wait until the fire dies down, the situation stabilizes, and the risk is minimal. We wait till we know the plan, and until we know the plan, we keep waiting. But first responders don’t wait. They go with the best plan they have, knowing that the best of plans evaporate in the heat of crisis. But better to be helping in the crisis with a melted plan than frozen in self-protection on the sidelines.

2. They stay prepared. First responders are ready today because they were ready yesterday. Although civilians sometimes jump in to help—like so many with Hurricane Harvey—first responders stay ready to help, and not just help, but lead. Too many of us spend our time waiting for the right opportunity instead of pursuing the right training and performing the right reps to get and stay prepared. First responders, in contrast, are ready because they stayed ready. If one of the most beautiful things in the world is when preparation meets opportunity, then first responders in a crisis are a beautiful thing.

3. They work together. First responders come in teams. They’re not just ready to help, but prepared to partner. They don’t strut in, alone, dressed in superhero costumes and capes. They come together, and they serve together. Crisis yanks on every link in the chain, and those who love independence and refuse collaboration become not only victims but dangers. But first responders come coordinated, or ready to coordinate as best they can.

4. They adapt. First responders adjust to any situation. They’re not omnipotent, they’re not omniscient, and they’re not superhuman. They can’t handle everything thrown their way. But they’re adaptable. When you don’t wait to jump in and help but simply jump in and help, you’ll always be forced to adapt. Perfectionism dies an early death when you’re the first one in. But what a way to live, because every adaptation is a lesson learned, every adjustment is wisdom gained, every experience is its own education. As I taught my counseling students, if you learn only in the classroom, you’ll be prepared only for the classroom. But if you learn in the field, you’ll be ready—as much as anyone can be ready—for the field.

5. They fail. First responders fail—all the time. They don’t get to everyone. They make wrong decisions. They overestimate and underestimate. They take the wrong route, come unprepared for the conditions, fail in any number of creative ways. Over and over again, throughout their years of service, they fail. And this is why I admire them. Because with Teddy Roosevelt, I’d rather be the man in the arena—”who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”—rather than the craven spectator or the haughty critic “who neither knows victory nor defeat.”

6. They don’t hype. It’s been remarkable to see so many strangers, neighbors, groups, and organizations jump in to help their fellow man in Houston throughout Hurricane Harvey and its ongoing effects. But it’s been discouraging to see a lot of virtue-signaling along the way. Individuals, churches, and organizations often seem incapable of doing good in difficult situations without publicizing these acts of service for all to see. Like the boy who declares he’s a man after every show of strength, it’s wearying to watch our societal inability to do good without posting about it somewhere. But I don’t see first responders hyping and hashtagging their activities. Perhaps like the good ol’ ball coach taught them, when they get to the end zone, they act like they’ve been there before.

So here’s to all first responders, both those still with us and those whose ultimate sacrifice demands a posthumous remembrance. We appreciate you, we’re learning from you, and we’re humbled to know you’ll be there when we call.

Photo Credit: AP