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Who's a hero these days? In an era of heightened heroism, the word "hero" has become common currency, now used freely to describe both victims and survivors of all kinds of tragedies.

In the aftermath of the massacre in Tucson, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly described 20-year-old political intern Daniel Hernandez as a hero because after the shooting he ran toward his boss, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and applied pressure to her wounds. Mr. Hernandez modestly told a memorial service he rejected the word hero but the crowd was having none of it.

And at a service for Tucson victim Dorwan Stoddard, a 76-year-old man killed while shielding his wife, his pastor said that Mr. Stoddard "didn't die a hero, he lived a hero." Just this week, after reviewing the surveillance video from the shooting, a police officer announced that another victim who died, Judge John Roll, should also be considered "a hero" for his actions during the shooting.

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Those are civilian heroes, caught up in extraordinary circumstances, who act instinctually with courage and grace. But what about first responders, for whom it is their job, in the words of one woman who is the widow of a police officer, to "rush toward danger."

In Toronto, downtown life as we know it stopped last Tuesday as more than 11,000 police and other emergency responders marched solemnly through the streets to honour Sgt. Ryan Russell, a 35-year-old "good man and a good cop," who was hit by a stolen snowplow during a blizzard and lost his life. Sgt Russell was deemed to have died a hero's death.

It used to be that the word hero was reserved for those who performed feats of exceptional, beyond the call of duty courage – the soldier for instance who ran through gunfire to rescue his platoon mates. Or for larger than life great leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, who emerged after 27 years of imprisonment and made the choice not to be bitter, and worked toward reconciliation as South Africa's first black president.

But today, our heroes are life-sized men and women to whom we can relate – people like us. We name a stretch of road Highway of Heroes and we gather along it to acknowledge the return of every soldier who dies in Afghanistan because every death, however senseless, is now regarded as heroic. No one talks bluntly of "duty" or says the deceased, after all, "signed up for it."

The overwhelming uniformed display during Sgt. Russell's funeral in Toronto, the blocked-off city streets, the live television coverage normally accorded a state funeral, seemed over the top to some observers, even though it genuinely reflected the fierce solidarity and support of the police "family" for one of its fallen members.

But it did raise this question: To make sense of a tragic death, do we now need to idealize the victims? Are you a hero because of what happens to you?

I asked road safety activist Eleanor McMahon whether she thought Sgt. Russell is a hero. Ms. McMahon's late husband, OPP officer Greg Stobbart, was killed in 2006 during an off-duty cycling accident by a truck driver with numerous convictions for driving while his licence was suspended.

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Through grief and outrage, Ms. McMahon founded Share the Road Cycling Coalition and lobbied vigorously until the Ontario provincial government passed Greg's Law, which came into effect last fall, allowing police to immediately impound the vehicles of suspended drivers caught on the road.

Ms. McMahon replied that she thought Sgt. Russell was indeed a hero. "Just imagine Davenport [Road] and Dupont [Street], the snow blowing and this policeman thinking I've got to stop this snowplow before it hurts others."

Ms. McMahon summed up why she considers many police officers to be heroes: "They rush toward danger – most of us rush away from it." She once went to a police academy graduation, she says, and saw their "young shiny faces" and the promise they made "to put their lives on the line and protect us."

She thinks citizens ought to "share in the grief" when a policeman dies, but she too is struck by our need to call so many people heroes.

Perhaps, she says, it's a "dynamic shaped by 9/11," when after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, "those fireman rushed into the buildings." It doesn't matter if it was their job, she says. "Most of us wouldn't do it."

That too is true. We count on first responders to be there, to rush toward danger – especially when it involves us or those we love. We expect nothing less. So when one of them dies doing just that, a whole host of emotions comes into play – including gratitude and guilt.

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The easiest part lies in calling them "heroes." It certainly honours them and the sacrifice they made.

But it doesn't honour them as much as trying to change the world or the circumstances that led to their deaths, so that others, be they police officers or civilians, don't have to die and be labelled heroes. That's how you really honour them.

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