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The impact of COVID-19 on first responders in the United States of America

Andrea M. Headley (McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, Washington, District of Columbia, USA)
Christa Remington (University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA)
Kaila Witkowski (Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, USA)
Santina L. Contreras (University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)
Nazife Emel Ganapati (Department of Public Administration, Florida International University, Miami, Florida, USA)

International Journal of Emergency Services

ISSN: 2047-0894

Article publication date: 16 January 2023

Issue publication date: 18 July 2023




This project specifically aims to examine (1) the individual impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on first responders, (2) the organizational impact of COVID-19 on first response agencies and (3) policy and organizational response and support efforts to mitigate potentially harmful effects of the pandemic.


The authors' conducted a mixed-methods analysis, including a review of secondary sources (e.g. government documents, organizational policies and news pieces), state-level policies, encompassing surveys, in-depth semi-structured interviews and PhotoVoice focus groups.


COVID-19 compounded many of the inherent risks facing first responders and added new stressors. First responders assumed added responsibilities during the pandemic which increased workloads, job-related stress, burnout, distance from the community and first responders' feelings of frustration. Even with personal protective equipment (PPE), first responders faced greater exposure to individuals with COVID-19 and were primarily concerned with transmitting the virus to family members, or other members of the first responders' support networks. State-level COVID-19 policies that were geared toward first responders aimed to improve the first responders' personal lives outside of work and mitigate burnout within the profession. First response agencies adapted to the pandemic by implementing a wide range of measures.

Practical implications

First responders also identified several weaknesses in the first responders' agencies' approach to the pandemic. To prepare for the next public health emergency, first response agencies should proactively train employees, build up the first responders' supplies of equipment and PPE, implement policies to strengthen their workforce (e.g. increase hiring for understaffed positions, reduce turnover and mitigate role abandonment), allow for greater employee autonomy, improve communication between leaders and employees and prioritize employees' mental health, as well as other factors relating to departments' informal culture.


This is one of the largest studies conducted on three types of first responders (police officers, fire firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics) across the United States of America during a public health crisis.



The authors would like to thank all of the research assistants that contributed to the data collection during this project, including Katherine Bleakly, Ben Duwve, Skoervitch Emile, Andrew McGirty, Emily Needham, Humayra Qadir, Ryan Raulynaitis, Mari-Nicole Rosales and Dakota Winn. The authors would also like to thank Maggie DeSisto for providing feedback, summative comments and copy edits to this brief. Furthermore, the authors would like to thank Professor Mark MacGowan for input into the survey measures used herein.


Headley, A.M., Remington, C., Witkowski, K., Contreras, S.L. and Ganapati, N.E. (2023), "The impact of COVID-19 on first responders in the United States of America", International Journal of Emergency Services, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 243-251.



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