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Public Responsibility for Last Responder Resiliency and Recognitions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elaine Ahumada, David Hernandez & Brenda Threatt
April 10, 2023

April 19-21, 2023, the National Funeral Directors Association will hold an advocacy summit in Washington, D.C. The agenda items for discussion will certainly include better stress management strategies in a post-crisis environment. The death care industry saw a mass exodus of employees leaving the death care industry during COVID, and the effects of the trauma remain for many of these individuals. This situation begs the question of whether to enact proactive legislation to protect the mental health of these last responders. The intent of Congressional Bill S.1511-Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021 is to increase the effectiveness of public safety by extending protective policies and benefits to first responders who may suffer injury or death in the line of duty during an emergency response. However, the Protecting First Responders Act does not include last responders. Coroners, funeral workers and many others within the death care industry are not considered first responders or second or third responders. They, thereby, are not included in any protection or benefits afforded to first responders. Ensuring the resiliency of the last responders should be considered.

The death care industry is comprised of workers from the private sector as well as the public sector. The government regulates and oversees the functions of funeral homes and associated roles within the industry. Government has an inherent responsibility to be held accountable beyond the apparent functions of the industry’s day-to-day operations. Oversight needs to include the psychological well-being of each worker.

As of 2019, the role of OSHA is to protect mental and physical health now. The apparent oversight refers to other physical health attributes as it is germane to the chemicals, substances and processes used in embalming. Addressing the specifics regarding mental health, including depression, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide, is not profoundly discoursed. Mental health support surrounding vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, especially after COVID deaths, has yet to be addressed effectively and tangibly.

COVID-19 demonstrated that emergency response workers included First Responders on the front end, but it also included the Last Responders on the back end. The Last Responders in public emergencies are the men and women who bury the dead and address the end-of-life duties for the decedents and the bereaved. The early onset of COVID-19 generated a trauma that emerged quickly, ravaging and ultimately consuming the lives of its victims. The weight of that trauma and the subsequent mental and physical detrimental effects of caring for COVID-19 victims engulfed the lives of first responders. The trauma of COVID-19 continued as the victims lived and suffered; however, the trauma did not end with suffering. The trauma persisted through the death and burial of the COVID-19 victims and consumed loved ones with emotional turmoil and grief. 

The death care industry bore the weight of every COVID-19 death, every grieving family and every burial, with as much care and dignity as possible. The death care industry carries out the necessary public health responsibility of disposing of deceased remains while containing the possibility of further contamination or infection. The industry is also responsible for mitigating the grief of loved ones who have lost someone to COVID-19, which they did with diminishing resources and negligible governmental support or public sector acknowledgment. 

The death care industry’s COVID-19 response as a public health partner and the single source solution at the end of life in an extreme death event defines the industry as an emergency response partner. It warrants the same protections and benefits as other emergency response workers. The COVID pandemic and the wake of its aftermath devastated the public safety workforce, Healthcare providers, third responders and their families. The face of devastation appeared as alcoholism, drug addiction, loss of employment, depression and many times, suicide.

The survivalists are the ones that sought professional help early. The progressive agencies that had peer support programs in place before the pandemic gave their employees this chance at survival. Likened to the water cycle of life, in that water from a variety of water bodies evaporates, cools, condenses and returns to the earth as rain, so should the current policies that lacked actionable approaches towards mental fatigue, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide return post-pandemic as a regenerated public health support system for all responders. The time to rethink, include and support the last responders is now. If nothing else, National First Responders Day is October 28, 2023. Commemorating all brave and selfless individuals, it seems fitting to also include our last responders. The resiliency of these exceptional workers is imperative to everyone, as it truly is a life-and-death situation.

Author: Elaine Ahumada, DPA – Dr. Elaine Ahumada has been teaching Public Administration and Public Policy courses over the past twenty years. She is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Public Administration at California Baptist University and has extensive practitioner experience in non-profit consulting and serving on boards for regional non-profits in Southern California. [email protected]

Author: David Hernandez, DPA – Dr. David Hernandez, Battalion Chief (Retired), currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at California Baptist University teaching Public Administration. He has served over thirty years in the fire service. He retired in 2019 after transitioning the fire department back to the city of Victorville. [email protected]

Author: Brenda Threatt, DPA – Dr. Brenda Threatt currently works as the Director of the Veteran Resource Center at El Camino College. She has held positions managing organizations that serve homeless veterans and families. Additionally, she serves as a military chaplain with the California State Guard, and a chaplain for the Los Angeles County Probation Department. 

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