First Responders Are Stressed Out and Short-Staffed. Are We Asking Too Much?

While we can't solve the staffing problem overnight, there are steps we can take — as community leaders, voters, and taxpayers — to improve this situation.


Imagine you arrive at work to find two coworkers absent. You need to cover their critical duties and as soon as you clock in, the emergency calls start. You skip lunch to get more done. Later you message your boss for help but get no reply. After 12 hours, you're exhausted when your supervisor calls — you need to work a double shift due to understaffing.

Now imagine this happens frequently and your job exposes you repeatedly to high-risk, traumatic situations — suicides, assaults, murders, helping people in mental crisis, treating injured victims, defusing domestic abuse, evacuating victims of fires and more.

For millions of first responders across the country, this is the reality. In recent surveys with more than 9,400 respondents, 87% of police officers said their agency wasn't fully staffed. In EMS, 86% said they'd experienced staffing challenges in the past three years — a number that rises to 94% for firefighters.

The consequences we face are unprecedented. Nearly two-thirds of EMS personnel say their stress level has increased due to staffing issues. Nearly 70% of police officers are concerned for their on-duty safety due to short staffing, and 67% of firefighters say stress is impacting their health.

Clearly, this is unsustainable. It's also unacceptable. First responders take an oath to put others before themselves. They routinely sacrifice their health and risk their safety to take care of us. We depend upon them to respond to our worst-case scenarios 24/7. We owe them better.

While we can't solve the staffing problem overnight, there are steps we can take — as community leaders, voters, and taxpayers — to improve this situation.

Provide Industry-Specific Resources

First, we can advocate for tools and technologies to support these heroes. Studies show many resources provided by municipalities — such as Employee Assistance Programs — are inadequate for first responders.

First responders go through life-threatening experiences and the stress of exposure to some of society's most deep-rooted issues — the opioid epidemic, homelessness, gun violence, and child abuse. Counselors available through the average city or country EAP rarely have training to help first responders process these experiences. As a psychologist who works exclusively with first responders, I've often seen patients whose first experience with therapy made things worse because the clinician — however well-meaning — lacked the competence to address their patient's experiences.

This is why it's essential we provide public safety personnel with 24/7 access to confidential, anonymous resources developed specifically for them. That's key to earning their trust and increasing the chance they'll ask for help. Another key element: ensuring the clinicians treating our first responders are appropriately trained.

As community leaders, we can ask our emergency services leaders what resources they provide for their personnel. We can make clear it's a community value to take care of those who take care of us.

Improve Leadership Training

Second, we can enhance the training our public safety professionals receive as they move through the ranks and start to supervise others. While the job itself is difficult, just around half of police officers, EMTs/paramedics and firefighters cite poor leadership as one of the most unsatisfying parts.

Is this because public safety leaders are selfish power-mongers determined to make their personnel miserable? Of course not. It's because leaders are given their posts without additional training. What makes a good firefighter is not what makes a good fire captain — yet too often, a good firefighter will be given the chance to supervise a crew with no job-specific training.

Nearly all emergency responders go through some sort of initial academy-level training and testing. This is a successful model we could implement for those rising through the ranks. Some progressive agencies have done just that, starting academies designed to help aspiring leaders learn the skills needed to transition from managing emergency incidents to managing people. For resource-strapped agencies, online training is a great option. While the online format can never replace in-person training, it can make classroom time more productive and help individuals interested in advancing their careers prepare to take the next step.

Competent, empathetic and courageous leaders are essential to ensuring our first responders don't leave the profession out of frustration or burnout.

Show Support

Finally, we can show support for the people who choose public safety careers. This is not to say we shouldn't hold them accountable to perform with integrity and professionalism. But only when these professions are respected and honored will we begin to chip away at the recruitment problem.

In the surveys I cited above, over 60% of law enforcement officers said the public presumption that police are wrong is the least satisfying part of their job. Less than 10% of officers are likely to recommend law enforcement as a career; for EMS, the figure is 18%. That's inadequate to produce a candidate pool deep enough to support our communities' growing emergency response needs.

Across the country, first responders do amazing things every day. Let's showcase those, too. Let's make clear we respect first responders. When they go astray, we must take corrective action. But we must be equally diligent not to paint them with a broad, negative brush.

Each of us can show our thanks for the work first responders do — through the content we share on social media, in our conversations with friends and family, and in the legislation or tax initiatives we support.

Answer the Call

None of us ever wants to call 911. But when we do, we expect — we trust — that someone will come to help.

And they do. They put our needs in front of theirs. It's OK that we expect this. It's not OK that we take it for granted. If we expect our call to be answered, we need to answer the call to support them. It's up to each of us — and it's within our power to make a positive difference.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
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