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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

First Responder Communication Strategies

Steps for Assisting and Directing People in Crisis

The Role of First Responders

Emergency responders know that disasters and mass violence events can cause immense amounts of traumatic physical and emotional pain. Responders often are identified as individuals who can help treat and stabilize medical needs or provide direction on how to get to safety during a crisis.  This means their actions and words have great influence on people who need assistance. In order to be most successful in providing care and safety in emergency situations, it is important to use effective and efficient communication strategies with those seeking help.

The following communication strategies can help responders gain trust and reduce anxiety in those being treated, and achieve better physical and emotional outcomes for patients and safer conditions for all.


Action Steps

Immediately seek to provide a sense of hope, safety, calm, and connectedness, regardless whether person is conscious or unconscious

  • In a high-stress, danger situation, most information processing occurs in the subconscious mind. Evidence suggests even the unconscious can remember sights, smells and sounds.

Look the person in the eye, remain calm, and avoid expressing any shock or panic

  • Non-verbal cues can often contradict our words so it is important to remain in control and aware of your own body language.

Create a calming environment

  • Wipe blood, mud, and debris from the person’s face; cover with a blanket; remove bystanders; and reduce lights/sirens if possible. These are things that can cause anxiety and feelings of distress and fear.

Seek to build trust by showing you care and by listening

  • Research suggests that people want to know you care before they care about what you know.
  • Trust is important if you are going to persuade a person to listen to you or act.
  • Listening, caring, empathy, and compassion account for half of trust building.
  • People will decide how much they trust you within the first 9-30 seconds of an interaction so it is important to make a positive first impression.
  • Paraphrase what you hear people say, validate how they feel, and reassure them to gain trust and to show you care.

Display competence and expertise as well as honesty and openness

  • Keep talking to the individual throughout the caregiving process. It can be calming for people if you let them know what you are doing and what they should expect when providing treatment or aid.
  • Give the person tasks to complete to help them feel more in control.
  • Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.  People are more likely to follow your direction if they believe you are telling them the truth.  Try to be positive, but do not over-reassure the person with statements that you can’t follow through on.

Speak clearly and specifically, using short messages and repeating as necessary

  • People tend to focus on what they hear first in stressful situations.
  • Evidence suggests that one’s ability to process information can be reduced by up to 80% in a crisis.
  • People often have difficulty hearing, understanding, and remembering information in a crisis event so you may need to repeat important facts.

Use positive language, such as “you will survive this”; avoid negatives, such as “you are not going to die”

  • Most mental processing is visual. In the above example, the subconscious mind will picture every word except “not” and will especially focus on “die”. People will often focus more on the negative than the positive.
  • Research shows it is harder to understand negative statements than positive ones.

If direct communication is met with resistance, use an indirect approach to communication

  • For example, “I don’t know when… you will feel better”, in which the command comes after an unassuming set-up phrase. Use this kind of a set up phrase and then deliver an embedded command with a change in tone, volume, tempo, or intensity to encourage the person to respond positively to your messages.

Accept the fact that people may have high-risk perceptions

  • Evidence suggests that in high-stress situations, sights, smells, sounds, and feelings are magnified for most people.  This creates a distorted sense of reality and perception of risk.
  • High risk perceptions can change the way messages or information is processed in the brain.
  • Continue to be reassuring so people can understand your direction. Do not get frustrated if you are not immediately understood.


General Messaging Approaches

  • Message processing is based on reception of information and acceptance of that information. In order to ensure that a message is both understood and accepted, it is helpful to include both specific knowledge and emotional factors.
  • Share information about the crisis, next steps, or other relevant information so the person can receive the message. To persuade the person to act on the information, or accept it, you need to emotionally engage them.
  • Getting a person to trust you or reconsider their attitudes may be helpful in convincing them to act or behave as you want during a crisis event.
  • The more you can make information appeal to the person you are assisting, by understanding their attitudes and thought processes, the better you can transmit your message.
  • A person will react to your message better if you can make it relate to them or if they can connect with you. These factors are often more important than facts when trying to convey a message.


Training and Development


Related Resources

  • This page last reviewed: January 06, 2016