Celebrating Everyday Heroes This National First Responders Appreciation Day

I've been a first responder since I was 17-years-old. After 42 years, I can say with certainty that I was destined to be one, just like my dad was. It's in my blood. Like many who serve on the front lines, I've witnessed tragedy, heartbreak, helplessness and disbelief. I've been frustrated more often than I'd like to admit, and there are days that, like all of you, I'm left asking "why?" But with each bout of frustration comes a renewed sense of commitment to my life work. I remind myself and my team members that even though first responders can't change the course of an event, our intervention helps things turn out for the better. All of our nation's defenders, including firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and law enforcement, can find comfort in knowing that we protect America's communities as best as we humanely can. And so, with National First Responders Appreciation Day on the horizon, I encourage you to pause and say "thank you" to those who, without fail, show up.

We show up in the face of danger and natural disaster because we are committed to serving others. And in these vulnerable moments, we rely on three things: our team; our training and experience; and our equipment. When on the front lines, I tell myself that there are dedicated people around me, supporting me, working toward the same goal. I tell myself that my expert training and past experience have prepared me for moments like this one. I tell myself that the equipment I'm wearing and operating was designed to protect me, and it will. Unfortunately, many Americans don't realize that these critical motivators and sources of protection are in jeopardy due to the financial challenges facing first responder organizations nationwide.

As you may suspect, many departments, including the one I'm a part of, have experienced a significant decrease in funding due to the economic downturn. This decrease has led to a dip in recruitment, as we're unable to pay the majority of our volunteers even a small stipend. Consequently, we're operating with a leaner team on the front lines. We've also experienced training cutbacks, as standards have changed since 9/11, and national training has become more costly. Thus our ability to develop future leaders, protectors and care providers is waning. We don't have the funds to replace aging equipment, including fire mitigation trucks and protective gear that help us do our job efficiently, effectively and confidently.

As a nation, we've endured inconceivable tragedies in recent years, and, as a result, first responders are at the forefront of American dialogue. Teams like mine are eternally grateful for the nation's support - your kind words and actions motivate and inspire us. However, in the context of the aforementioned challenges, it seems there is more work to be done. According to a recent survey* from wine brand Josh Cellars -- an advocate of the cause - nearly all (94%) people believe first responders deserve more recognition and support for the work they do, but only one -- third (32%) has supported a first responder cause before. This discrepancy between desire and action suggests that people are eager to show their support, but often don't know how. I'd like to take this opportunity to share a few ways you can get involved:

  1. For social media enthusiasts: It's as easy as visiting Facebook.com/JoshCellars and "liking" the page. For every new "like" through October 2, Josh Cellars, which was founded in honor of a volunteer firefighter, will donate $2 to the Gary Sinise Foundation in support of first responders.
  2. For those who want to connect with the first responders in their own backyard: Swing by your local fire station and get to know the men and women who sacrifice their safety to protect yours. You may be surprised to find that many of them are a lot like you: juggling full time jobs, family life, and other personal commitments. You don't have to empty your wallet to show them you care -- a simple "thank you" will have a bigger impact than you might think. A short visit will also help you learn more about upcoming educational series, fundraisers and other events the station may be planning.
  3. For those looking to deepen their level of service: Educate yourself on the different first responder career paths and identify where your experience and passion best align with a need. Generally speaking, the first responders I've had the honor of working beside are compassionate, team-oriented, intuitive and driven to affect change in their communities. If this describes you, wait no longer to explore your options.

I understand there is an abundance of causes out there -- each equally important and deserving of your attention. In celebration of National First Responders Appreciation Day, I respectfully ask that you join me in supporting this one.

*The 2013 Josh Cellars First Responders Day Survey presents the findings of an online survey conducted September 9-11, 2013 among a sample of 1,011 adults comprising 510 men and 501 women 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for a sample of this size is ± 3%.