The Legal Definitions of "First Responder"

SHRP2 program

This digest was prepared to answer the following questions: first, whether there is a definition of the term “first responder” in federal law, and second, if there is a definition in federal law, what is the definition’s effect on the distribution of federal grant funding. This digest also contains an analysis of grants available from the federal government to aid state and local governmental entities in preparing for and responding to natural or manmade disasters and emergencies (i.e., grants that would be available to those who might be considered “first responders”). The grant programs are analyzed and described in terms of general information about each grant’s guidelines for applicants and administration.

The conclusion reached after examining federal law, regulations, and other federal executive branch documents is that there is no “definition” of the term “first responder.” The term has come to be used popularly or colloquially to refer to law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical personnel, especially after the events of September 11, 2001. For example, the research shows that “first responder” has been used in that sense in testimony by members of the federal executive branch before congressional committees and also by members of Congress in statements on the floor of Congress and in some congressional bills that were not enacted into law. The term is used by the chief funding agencies for “disaster-related” grants, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on their websites in general descriptive language and also appears in the same sense on the website of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The term is used in a non-legal sense in other executive branch documents (e.g., the curriculum for a training course prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA]).

Content Type

  • Research

Publishing Organization

  • SHRP2 Program


  • Learning

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Bricker, Lew R. C.; Petermann, Tanya N.; Hines, Margaret; and Sands, Jocelyn
Issue Date
April 22nd, 2013
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