How to thank a first responder
October 7, 2020 2:55 PM   Subscribe

In the coming days/weeks I will be unusually likely to cross paths with firefighters and other professional "helpers" who, among other acts of valor, saved my house and my community at no little cost to themselves. Many of them continue to circulate in my neighborhood to answer questions, provide reassurance and solve technical issues associated with the original emergency. I need to know how to properly acknowledge them and appropriately express the overwhelming feelings of gratitude and awe I am experiencing right now.

After a 10-day evacuation due to out-of-control wildfires my husband and I have just returned home to find that there is a "staging area" for firefighters and first responders directly across the highway from us. And there's a similar area for PG&E workers right next to it. I have already come face to face (at local Safeway and Starbuck's) with emergency personnel who very probably participated in the truly heroic effort that was made to keep the fires from consuming our small village (for the second time since 2017).
I am quite overcome with emotion and would like to know, particularly from the point of view of actual first responders, what is the kindest way to acknowledge their huge sacrifice and the debt we obviously owe them without succumbing to the urge to "over-thank" and gush, which I have observed can be quite embarrassing to them and, thus, to me. The worst is when they feel obliged to thank me for thanking them. Please help me know what to do (or not do) in this situation that will satisfy my extreme need to express gratitude without causing awkwardness and uncomfortability all around. I am most interested in first-person advice from people who have been in the position of having acted heroically but welcome input from everyone on this, for me, thorny topic which I must assume to be a permanent part of our future landscape. Complicating matters this time is Covid-19, which makes hugs and heartfelt handshakes (my first instinct) impossible.
posted by flowergrrrl to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I make cakes for people like that (I am a hobby baker.) I research first and if they are low-carbers or gluten-free'ers, I make them crustless quiches.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:23 PM on October 7

One of the things people around here did especially in early-COVID lockdown times to support/thank our health care workers was put huge signs in the windows of houses that faces our hospital with "WE HEALTH ❤️ CARE WORKERS" You can also bring donuts/coffee/bagels/seltzers over to the area with a note on top that says how much you appreciate the work they did.
posted by jessamyn at 3:23 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]

So I’m a fireman and have been for a good bit.

We absolutely LOVE food. Store bought is fine, but omg great baked goods, homemade pasta tins, ice cream sandwiches (if there’s freezer space). Excellent coffee also goes a long way. You say there’s a major staging area, and I’m thinking it’s probably an exponentially larger version of what I experienced in 16 when I went to the western part of the state to work the Party Rock fire. Everyone was so grateful for all of the donations.

Another avenue is to contact the logistics branch OR any of the volunteers running the food operations because they can tell you what people need/would like to have. It may be they would like some fresh socks or t-shirts or cooling towels. I’m not being facetious; when you’re deployed it’s sometimes very difficult to access those items you could usually run out and acquire.

Caveat: I am from the East coast and ops here are VERY different. We actually had Oregon in for logistics and a few other things.

Thank you for thinking of them, but don’t be surprised if people are humble. After all, it’s our job and for many of us it’s a calling and we don’t think too terribly much about any discomfort that might be perceived from the outside.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 4:06 PM on October 7 [7 favorites]

Handpainted wooden signs that are placed on bigger roads (in addition to on your own street) are big morale boosters. Lots of wildfire crews are coming in from elsewhere, so they won't necessarily get food gifts going to local firehouses, but as they travel in and out of the wildfire areas, they see the signs!
posted by quince at 4:10 PM on October 7

Quince, to piggyback on your comment, we actually had access to local firehouses (brotherhood, after all) for food, donated clothing and equipment, extra showers/washing machines/minor maintenance for tools. So while the guys at the local houses might bogart some of the donations, I don’t think that would be the case. [ETA: if I come in the station and a donation is earmarked for a particular shift or crew that was responsible for the public reaction, I don’t touch it, and neither does anyone else who didn’t respond - it’s not ours. If it’s for everyone, then we partake.]

If the scale is what I’m thinking about, there are multiple public and private fire agencies, local and state emergency management resources, tons of LEO, and municipal workers (public works, finance, utilities, etc) all involved. Speaking with a local contact of some stature would assure that the donations are moved to the correct place.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 4:17 PM on October 7

If it’s a volunteer department: donate money, if you can. It’s the time of year that they’ll be asking, soon. If it’s not: write to your mayor/town council/county rep/governor about how much you value them, and maybe see if there is anything the union is pushing for that community support would help with.

I agree about food, maybe store-bought is better right now.

At our local FD, thank you letters (ones that aren’t too personal) get put up on the bulletin board in a public area. It’s sweet. If you were in the area and got good pictures of them looking like heroes, get them printed—those also go up on the walls.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:42 PM on October 7

Here in Aus a big favourite was a fridge out on the road (no chance of rain) containing chilled beverages.
posted by quercus23 at 5:13 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]

Officially, the crews only want a supportive wave when you pass then on the road, but cookies, brownies or cupcakes (stuff they don't have to cut because of covid worries) would be greatly appreciated.

My employer told me to pack a go-bag because I would be headed to one of those camps but unfortunately I never got the call to head out
posted by spork at 5:53 PM on October 7

Sorry to threadsit. I asked my question badly and need to clarify a bit. I am talking specifically about what to do when I encounter uniformed first responders in the grocery aisle or in line at Starbuck's or any other public place that is neither their actual place of work nor where they are temporarily stationed till the current crisis is contained. It doesn't feel at all good to simply ignore someone who is clearly a person I owe a great deal to, even though I don't know them personally, although this may be what they prefer. It also feels inadequate to say a simple, quiet thank you and leave it at that. It actually feels imperative to acknowledge the magnitude of the thing they so recently did for me and my neighbors and I desperately want to express the intensity of my appreciation without somehow embarrassing us all in the process.
I guess my dilemma is with the personal nature of chance meetings outside of our defined spaces. Taking home-baked treats and personal care items to their encampment or station house is an interaction with parameters I understand and feel comfortable operating within. I have done this in the past and now that I know how much it is appreciated will make sure to keep it up and encourage friends to do so as well. I just need to know how people who have done something recently and very publicly heroic would prefer being approached (or not) as they go about their daily business of getting coffee and shopping for provisions.
posted by flowergrrrl at 7:12 PM on October 7

Oh! Got ya.

You can just say hello and thank you AND SHARE YOUR STORY (with brevity), or ask us some short questions about how it’s going, conditions, our organizations etc if people aren’t in an obvious hurry. I/my crew with me has had people pick up our tabs for us at the coffee shop or grocery store and while it’s very much appreciated it’s also not necessary.

We have people talk to us and approach us for information, thank yous, conversation often; as public servants it’s technically in our job description to interact with the public. The private wildland folks might be a slightly different breed though, so YMMV, but your municipal/local paid/vol ff have a much larger investment in the community and its constituency.

But, it’s just a part of the job and we’re happy to have had the opportunity to serve you.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 11:43 PM on October 7

"You rock! Thank you for all that you do" with a big smile and move on.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:52 AM on October 8

Not gonna lie: this whole thread made me misty. Thanks for all you men and women do!
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 11:15 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]

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