Emergency Response Services


Emergency Response Services (sometimes called First Responders) are the public, private and volunteer organizations that respond to incidents that threaten the safety and wellbeing of people in their area. They generally include fire departments, police services and emergency medical services (EMS).

Although response systems are common around the world, they are not all the same. The level and effectiveness of emergency response coverage are also not consistent.

North Americans have grown accustomed to emergency response services having access to helicopters, rescue boats, air ambulances and/or waterbombers. However, these are a rarity in many areas outside of Australia, Europe and North America. Emergency response could be a public service, private professional service, entirely or partially volunteer or supported by a nongovernmental organization (i.e., Red Cross or St. John Ambulance) depending upon the jurisdiction.

In most jurisdictions, emergency response services are allowed to operate with warning devices such as lights and sirens that enable them to have priority over road traffic and aerial and water-based emergency response services are given priority through their respective traffic control systems. Most North American services are organized around a municipality or a county, while many systems elsewhere are operated on a national scale. In many countries, emergency response services are far from “just around the corner”; they may be hours or even days away.

Governments around the world are tasking emergency response services to do more with fewer resources. For example, fire departments’ mission to extinguish fires dates back to the Roman Vigiles. In the 21st century, we expect firefighters to provide fire suppression, hazardous materials response, swift water rescue, medical response, automobile extrication, search and rescue and many other roles far beyond putting fires out.  Additionally, EMS agencies have moved far past the “load and go” era where an ambulance was simply a method of getting a patient to the hospital.

Other emergency services usually exist in various forms in every country, based on need. The Coast Guard is generally responsible for emergencies on large bodies of water and provides some law enforcement services in national waters. On lakes and rivers, it is usually local first responders providing these services.

Specialized resources exist in many areas, but these usually have a very narrow scope because of the high level of training and equipment required. The composition and governance of these teams can range from local teams that respond only in their jurisdiction, to regional teams that respond across their country, to national and international teams that respond around the world. Some of these specialized resources can include:

  • Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team (HUSAR): They can explore damaged or destroyed buildings to rescue people or recover the deceased.
  • Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT): This team can deploy a hospital-like facility including emergency department, operating rooms, acute care wards and intensive care units in areas with damaged or destroyed infrastructure.
  • Incident Management Team (IMT): This team has the experience and training to provide leadership of complex, multi-organization and multi-region incidents that can involve thousands of people from hundreds of agencies.
  • Wildfire Team: There are many types of wildfire teams, ranging from rapid attack smokejumpers who parachute into the middle of a new fire to long-term mop-up units that ensure fires are fully and completely extinguished.
  • Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Team (CBRNE): These specialized teams respond to incidents involving CBRNE materials. Although some CBRNE teams are integrated with very large fire departments, many jurisdictions maintain a regional or federal team as well.
  • Ground Search and Rescue Team: While aerial search and rescue is mostly the responsibility of military, law enforcement and Coast Guard resources, Ground Search and Rescue is often made up of volunteer organizations. Less frequently, Spontaneous and Unaffiliated Volunteers (SUAV) will be enlisted to support a ground search when required.

Key Facts

  • Many places around the world do not have local access to emergency services. Many rural and remote communities must get their emergency services from other communities that can be hours or more away. In some places, the only emergency service of any type is a federal law enforcement office at a regional hub city.
  • Emergency services are often run on a minimal budget using repurposed and salvaged equipment. Even within North America, many small emergency service departments rely on outdated equipment handed down through multiple other services. While large city emergency services can typically afford to replace equipment and vehicles regularly, many services operate as volunteers on budgets of less than $100,000 per year.
  • Local emergency service departments are the first trained people on the scene of a disaster and are sometimes the only people to respond. When wildfires burned across Northern Oklahoma and Southern Kansas in the spring of 2018, there were so many fires burning that departments in the area had to keep their trucks close by and could not help their neighboring communities.
  • Emergency service access is not universal. While most countries have some variation of a three-digit emergency phone number such as 911, 111, 112 or 999, this service relies on appropriate infrastructure. If an area does not have the telecommunications infrastructure including a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) where emergency calls can be processed and assigned to the appropriate agency, then they are unable to use this service. There are still some regions of Canada and the U.S., which remain without access to 911 services. Some specialized resources can only be requested through appropriate emergency services’ channels and are not available directly to the public.
  • Many emergency services are working to enhance the resilience in their response areas by providing proactive and reactive (response) services. Fire inspections, smoke alarm distribution, mobile integrated health or community paramedicine and community-based policing initiatives are examples of proactive work by emergency services to reduce the need for emergency response and increase community resiliency.

How to Help

Ideally, state or local municipalities finance emergency services. However, this does not always occur or are adequate funding sources, especially in smaller, rural and tribal communities. These areas often receive second-hand equipment that may be expensive to maintain; first responders often work without full safety protection.

Emergency services support is expensive: a fully-equipped ambulance costs approximately $250,000, and comprehensive training and outfitting a firefighter with appropriate equipment costs roughly $12,500. Although it is not the role of philanthropy to fund equipment and vehicles, there are a few ways philanthropy can help emergency responders.

  • Lend your voice to campaigns for equipment. Advocate for your local fire department or EMS with your municipal and state representatives.
  • Make a low- or no-cost loan to support a capital or equipment campaign. This provides immediate access to safety equipment that jurisdictions can pay over a longer period.
  • Support local emergency services through unrestricted cash donations that support their operating funds or personnel. This is particularly important for volunteer operations. During the Australia bushfires of 2020, many volunteer firefighters were fighting fires but unable to work at their “day job,” leaving their families without necessary resources.
  • Build connections between emergency services. Seek out organizations that connect experienced and well-resourced departments to new or under-resourced departments by providing them with training, equipment and vehicles.
  • Support the development of community-based emergency services. It is important to promote and fund proactive and preventative services as well as emergency response.
  • Address issues of mental health in first responders. Provide grants to organizations that specifically support front-line emergency service workers, especially with financial or psycho-social and emotional health supports.
  • Support organizations that provide anti-bias training for first responders. Identify leaders in the community who work with emergency services to address racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia.

What Funders Are Doing

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s (CDP) Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund, in partnership with the Rebuild Texas Fundprovided grants to the following organizations in Texas following Hurricane Harvey:

Other examples of funding for emergency response services include:

  • Sussex Community Foundation made a $2,566 grant to Sussex Search and Rescue, the primary volunteer resources used by Sussex Police to search and rescue vulnerable people. SusSAR is staffed purely by volunteers, covering the whole of Sussex. Concerning Covid-19, with current U.K. Government guidance, they are classed as first responders. Funding will be for additional PPE, fuel, servicing and other vehicle costs in 2021.
  • StartSmall LLC made an $830,000 grant to Bread of Life in 2020 to purchase and provide emergency supplies to hospitals, police and fire departments, nursing homes and nonprofits to help them battle the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
  • Gulf Coast Community Foundation made a $40,000 donation in 2020 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County to launch its First Responder Program. The initiative provides free child care to local first responders employed by Sarasota County Fire Department, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Sarasota Police Department.
  • Austin Community Foundation made a $5,000 grant to the Austin Vietnamese American Medical Professional Society in 2020 to provide medical needs relief to health care professionals giving direct patient care (hospitals, health agencies, medical offices) and first responders through donated hand-made fabric face masks.
  • Golden Leaf Foundation made a $500,000 donation to the County of Hyde to construct a new EMS station on Ocracoke Island after the existing station was flooded by Hurricane Dorian.

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(Photo: A wildland firefighter’s view of the large smoke plume coming from the Cameron Peak Fire during structure protection operations. Source: South Metro Fire Rescue)