At the Brookline (MA) Historical Society, which I’ve led as a volunteer since 2009, we received an inquiry from someone who found what he thought was the earliest use of the term “first responder” in its current meaning. It was from a 1977 newspaper article that referred to the Brookline Volunteer First Responders Association, and he wanted to see if we had more information about that organization.
It turned out that the article he found was actually about Brookline, New Hampshire, not Brookline, Massachusetts. But, of course, I was curious. So, Brookline-related or not, down the rabbit hole I went.
The earliest use of the term in the current sense that I could find is from Massachusetts. It’s from the Boston Globe on August 12, 1973. It’s in an article about proposed regulations governing ambulances in Massachusetts.
A week later, a second article by the same reporter (Richard A. Knox) on the proposed legislation — it had apparently been under consideration in various forms for 12 years – mentioned the term again. (Knox now works for WBUR and NPR; I have written to him but have not yet heard back.)
The Boston Herald picked up the term in an article in May 1974. I also found the term in a job ad for a Deputy Chief of EMT Training in Boston in July 1974.
After that, the floodgates seemed to open. I found the term in articles later that year in newspapers in Pennsylvania, Montana, Idaho, California, and Connecticut. There are many more from all over in 1975 and thereafter. The term was usually in quotation marks at first, though that practice eventually gave way.
It should be noted that the term “first response,” in the same sense, appeared in at least a couple of places a little bit earlier than these first uses of “first responder.”
A search in Google books finds the term “first responder” in various state government regulations as early as the 1930s, but I believe this is a dating error in Google books as these actually appear to be from much, much later. (They are available in snippet view only, so it is hard to confirm that, but I am pretty sure.) It does, however, seem quite possible that the term was used in government regulations or perhaps insurance company documents before it hit the media and more common use.
Finally, here is a view of the growth of the term from Google’s ngram viewer, which traces terms in the corpus of material digitized by Google. It does show some pre-1970s uses, but those are really those misdated government documents. The graph really shows it starting to take off in the mid-1970s.
I added this information, in not quite such detail, to a new etymology section of the Wikipedia article on First responder on February 21, 2021.