A Quick Start Guide To Celebrating Our First, First Responders

Alexia Jobson

Web Exclusives

Maybe it was walking through the logistics garage and seeing the disappointed look on a paramedic’s face as they gazed into the box of stale, cut-in-half donuts that had been sitting there for about 16 hours. Or maybe it was when a few leaders realized that awards and medal bars were only being given to a select handful of paramedics and EMTs. Actually, I think it was the comment on the survey that said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “A catered meal once during the week is great, but we aren’t dogs; we can feed ourselves. Aren’t there ways to celebrate us other than just food?” Oof. That one stung.

As the planners for a recognition week, it’s easy to be defensive (“They should be grateful for whatever we do for them!”), or to rationalize a lackluster effort (“Budgets are tight. We are understaffed and overworked—what more can we do?”), or to throw up our hands in resignation (“We could hand them $100 in cash, and they would still complain. So why do anything?”). But if you really believed any of that, you wouldn’t have stopped to read this article.

I’ve been trying to recall exactly the catalyst for reimagining how we approach appreciation weeks (National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, EMS Week, etc.) at REMSA Health. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It also doesn’t matter that every event and giveaway isn’t going to feel perfect to every employee. What matters is that we approach this with a focus on celebrating our teams and working to communicate our genuine appreciation for all they do. At REMSA Health, we needed inspiration, fresh ideas, and permission to break the stale-donut/cold-pizza mold.

Whether you’re the leader responsible for planning the recognition events or you are a frontline employee who wants to make them better, consider this article your permission, inspiration, and starting point for fresh ideas.

Form a committee (I know you’re groaning, but hear me out)

I know, I know—group work can seem more challenging than helpful—but the old saying, “Many hands make light work” is often true. The celebrations shouldn’t feel like the responsibility of just one person. In fact, it should be a team effort so that good ideas become great ideas, and if something misses the mark, the entire committee shares the responsibility.

Plus, your colleagues know their teams better than anyone, so they can offer recognition ideas that feel personalized. Leaders know that one group might appreciate a big pizza party at the end of the shift where people can unwind and celebrate together while the other team isn’t interested in spending more time with their co-workers. Instead, they would appreciate a challenge coin and a handwritten note from a senior leader.

Inform the committee participants that you’re relying on them to execute achievable ideas that will be meaningful to the employees. Once you have a committee, set a recurring weekly meeting—with an agenda—where individual progress is reported, group assistance is offered, and tasks are shared fairly.

Ideas and inspiration

Consider this list an a la carte menu. Take what you want, leave what you don’t. These rewards, awards, gifts, celebrations, and events should be adjusted for what resonates with your employees and colleagues so that all employee groups feel equally celebrated and appreciated.


Choose a few days (to cover employees across all shifts) to have a meal catered. Think beyond a tray of deli sandwiches or pizza. Consider barbecued meats and sides, charcuterie and fruit trays, a taco bar, or an elevated boxed meal from a local restaurant. (At REMSA Health, we love the turkey pesto wrap, quinoa salad, and vegan double chocolate chip cookie from our favorite Reno spot).

Host a coffee truck. Include a specialty drink plus a pastry.

Keep a stash of frozen novelties such as Drumsticks, ice cream sandwiches, or Popsicles available for people to grab when they need a treat.

Get a selection of the group’s favorite energy drinks. I know they aren’t the healthiest choice, but it’s a celebration week—give the people a little of what they want.

Provide baskets around your location of individually packaged trail mix, jerky, popcorn, and fruit bars.

Organize a potluck. You can plan it around a theme (sporting event food), a regional cuisine (Greek food), or make it a contest (chili cook-off).

Leaders cook and serve. They can grill hamburgers and hot dogs, work the griddle for pancakes and breakfast burritos, or host a spaghetti feed.

Feel good

Arrange for on-site chair or hand massages, yoga instruction, meditation instruction, visits from pet-therapy teams, or small-group personal training sessions.


About two months before your celebration week, establish award categories and create an online submission form. Google Forms is free and can be submitted directly into a Google Sheet for easy tracking. Encourage everyone to make submissions. Award categories can include Clinical Excellence, Newcomer of the Year, and Dispatcher of the Year. About 10 days before your celebration week, have the committee determine award winners in an objective way. Order small plaques or awards that include the employee’s name, award name, agency name, year, and any other relevant information.

Community recognition

Write social media posts including statistics about how many calls the center takes, what the top calls are, what certifications emergency dispatchers hold, emergency dispatcher profiles, and features of awarding-winning emergency dispatchers.

Contact local news media about emergency dispatch award winners for news coverage.


Employee group or department events can include bowling, laser tag, movie night at a drive-in (families welcome), go-karts, or arcade games.

Host an awards event—invite community supporters and partners as well as elected officials and family members of honorees.

Organize a reunion between a caller, an emergency dispatcher, and/or a field provider, officer, or firefighter.

Thank-you gifts

Choose a useful item such as a lunch cooler, tote bag, stadium seat, high-end hot/cold tumbler (Yeti, Stanley), or something that shows off their pride like a T-shirt or a challenge coin.


Purchase a portable prize wheel and make random appearances throughout the week giving people the chance to win gift cards, sporting event tickets, a few extra hours of PTO, shift coverage from a supervisor, reserved parking for a month, equipment such as customized seat cushions, footrests, or exclusive agency apparel.

Seeking support

You might be thinking, “These ideas are great, but who is paying for all of this?” I understand that feeling. First, consider the cost of not fully and genuinely expressing appreciation to the emergency dispatchers and employees at your center. Retention is arguably more important than it’s ever been. The average cost of replacing and onboarding an emergency dispatch employee is thousands of dollars—not to mention the time spent training and orienting them. Lack of recognition remains among the top reasons an employee leaves an organization.

So, in the words of REMSA Health’s President and CEO Barry Duplantis when asked to approve the 2022 EMS Week budget, “We can’t afford not to invest in a recognition week that is meaningful to our employees; they are our most important asset.” I encourage you to work with your leaders to responsibly, but generously, allocate the financial resources needed for a worthwhile celebration.

In addition, you can supplement any size budget with sponsorships and donations. Create a list of vendors, regional businesses, and community partners that may want to thank or celebrate your center. This should include everything from the local coffee shop to the technology company whose software is used in your center. Apparel and equipment vendors, organ donor organizations, hospitals, civic and service clubs, and financial institutions all are likely supporters.

Consider drafting a letter that briefly affirms the crucial role your center plays in the well-being of the community and make a gracious request that they consider supporting emergency dispatchers and employees during this recognition week. Include examples of the activities you have planned and a suggested cash sponsorship amount that would cover that activity or item. End the letter by saying that if they have a different cash or in-kind donation in mind, you are happy to accept that as well. Be sure to include a reminder of how they will be recognized (verbally at events, on social media, etc.) and of course, send a thank-you note at the conclusion of the recognition week.

It's more than hot pizza and fresh donuts

Telecommunicators are the professionals that provide a critical lifeline of support during high-pressure emergency calls. Whether it comes in the form of bragging rights from the potluck competition, a relaxing chair massage, a social media feature, a spin of the prize wheel, or a plaque celebrating their 100% quality review, telecommunicators (as well as firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and law enforcement officers) deserve thoughtful and sincere appreciation, as well as celebration and recognition for their dedication and expertise.