Superheroes in Waiting: Emergent First Responders

Although they may not want to be called “heroes,” military members and veterans can fill a critical gap in emergency and disaster response. Their unique qualities of training, discipline, leadership, and teamwork make them the perfect emergent responder either as a member of an organized team, or simply by being in the right place at the right time.

It is not a normal everyday occurrence for U.S. Army Captain Steve Voglezon to rescue people from a burning car and pull multiple people to safety. Even more unlikely, is that he would be wearing a Captain America T-shirt while doing it. However, that is the nature of the military or veteran emergent first responder, someone who is in the right place at the right time with both the will and the courage to act. Simply on his way to the mall, the soldier from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, found himself in May 2015 thrust into the role of first responder as he pulled two people to safety from a vehicle collision with one of the vehicles fully engulfed in flames. When asked about the courage and bravery of his actions, the young captain simply said, “I really didn’t have time to think or be scared, just time to react – I saw people who needed help and I guess the Army programming just kicked in.” Luckily, for the two victims, it did.

A list of the qualities for the perfect emergent first responder likely would include the following:

  • Able to operate in complex, confusing, and quickly changing situations;

  • Able to endure hardship;

  • Thrives in austere environments;

  • Mission focused and able to operate with minimum guidance;

  • Comfortable with leadership;

  • Confident;

  • Physically fit;

  • Able to inspire loyalty;

  • A team player; and

  • Passionate about volunteerism and serving others.

It is no surprise that these qualities also are some of the perfect descriptions for the modern generation of military members and veterans. These qualities and a number of other factors make the military member or veteran the perfect emergent first responder in times of crisis. Many military veterans become formal first responders, with a tendency to gravitate toward professions within the law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, and emergency management communities when they leave the service. However, many others return to their communities to open small businesses, or to become managers, foremen, bankers, electricians, etc. Some return to the university to complete their education, and many others settle into the community and start families, join faith communities, coach youth sports, and do all the activities that young adults are expected to do.

However, for many veterans, they sometimes feel that something is missing – a sense of duty or a sense of service. It might just be a fleeting thought at times, but it is present. That might very well be the end of the story, but local emergency managers or newly designated crisis incident commanders should take stock and consider the talents and capabilities of military members and veterans. These valuable resources could serve either as part of a designated reserve manpower pool or simply as an emergent first responder during times of an emergency. In any case, it is a wise choice in terms of the latter and a great strategic investment in terms of the former.

The Unique Qualities of Military Personnel and Veterans

There are key areas of emphasis for emergency management and response that make military personnel and veterans a perfect fit for most emergency management and responder organizations. Three basic categories are: (a) training and discipline; (b) leadership and teamwork; and (c) tested and proven experience.

Training and discipline: From the first day of initial entry training (boot camp), all branches of the military instill a unique sense of self-discipline in each member. This then contributes to an overall sense of teamwork and group identity that allows a bunch of strangers to become a functioning, organizational unit with a group identity and shared sense of purpose in a very short period of time. Military members and veterans never forget that experience and are able to repeat it even many years after leaving the service. The military also teaches practical skills such as physical agility, problem solving, survival skills, navigation, first aid, etc. All of these teachings and many more are the recipe of skills that most first responder organizations need as well. Veterans also value structure and the chain of command, so they intuitively understand the Incident Command System (ICS).

Leadership and teamwork: It is no secret that the military operates as a unit or a team at all levels. Even the smallest special operations unit or the fighter pilot has a team of talented and dedicated individuals that they rely on to help them perform their tasks and, in so doing, they all contribute to the overall mission. In addition to teamwork, one of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military is the ability of all of its members – from the most junior private, seaman, or airman to the most senior general or admiral – to step into a leadership role when necessary and appropriate. For an emergency manager or incident commander, this skill can be critical in knowing that a particular individual is up to the task of leadership at a critical point in a crisis.

Tested and proven experience: One of the biggest unknowns within the emergency response community is exactly how a person – particularly one who is not a formal responder – will respond when faced with his or her first real crisis situation. Regardless of the amount of training or number of exercises, the “real thing” always seems to add an increased level of anxiety and stress. For the most part, military members and veterans in the current generation have served at least one deployment or combat tour with many having served three or more in a normal tour, service, or career. That kind of experience proves invaluable in an emerging crisis situation.

Leveraging Military Members & Veterans

There is no single best method to leverage military members and veterans within the emergency management community, but there are options. One option is to create an emergency response organization fully staffed by veterans, which is exactly what the organization known as Team Rubicon did in the wake of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the island nation of Haiti in 2010. Two Marines (there are no “former” Marines) together with six other veterans gathered funds and medical supplies from friends and family and flew into the Dominican Republic, where they rented a truck, loaded their gear, headed west to Haiti, and began helping the response efforts. They have not looked back since and have created a dynamic organization of self-deploying veterans, which continues to deploy both domestically and internationally when disaster strikes – most recently in Texas helping with flood relief.

However, not every community can have a Team Rubicon, or even be members of the organization because of day jobs, families, responsibilities, and an inability to pick up and deploy for a few weeks or more at a time. There are several ways that military members and veterans can help their communities, and that local organizations can capitalize on the skills and abilities of these community members.

The first and perhaps most productive way is to become a member of a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Veterans would be instantly familiar and comfortable with the squad-like paramilitary structure of the organization. If a community does not have a CERT, it is relatively easy to start one. Other options to leverage veterans include recruiting them for: volunteer fire departments, rescue squads, search and rescue teams, and similar response teams. The bottom line: The possibilities are endless after tapping into this great reservoir of talent (capes are optional)!

Wayne Bergeron
Dr. Wayne P. Bergeron, lieutenant colonel (retired), served in the United States Army for 23 years within the Military Police Corps and Special Operations Forces. He currently serves as an associate professor teaching criminal justice and security as well as emergency management. He is the founding director of the North Alabama Public Service Training Center at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, providing continuing education and training to the region’s law enforcement, fire/rescue, emergency medical services, and emergency management communities. His education includes undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and political science, a master’s degree in international relations, and a doctorate in emergency management.



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