The situations that firefighters encounter can be extremely challenging, even for the most highly trained and experienced. (Photo by John Cetrino.)
It will come as no surprise that the fire and rescue service is one of the most stressful jobs around. The situations that firefighters encounter can be extremely challenging, even for the most highly trained and experienced. Although they may be able to successfully extinguish flames during an emergency situation, firefighters are often left with more than physical burns and injuries as a result of their duties. They also struggle with stress and inner turmoil that can linger long after their shift is over and that often overlaps into their personal relationships.
A Different Lifestyle
Stacy Brown is the wife of a firefighter and mother to their six children. One challenge that first responders like her husband have to deal with is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Many of them will deny it, but if you are a firefighter long enough, you will have it,” observes Brown. Her name has become well known in the firefighting community since starting her blog, A Firefighter’s Wife, in 2008, where she and others in similar circumstances chronicle the special challenges that firefighting poses for spouses, families, and relatives.
According to Brown, the impact of the firefighting occupation can be summed up in one phrase: having a very different lifestyle. “There are a lot of desperate women holding on by a thread because they just don’t understand the lifestyle. I married into it so it is all I know. Some of these men have chosen this vocation after they were married; they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. It’s a different lifestyle, which can be very hard on marriages. Indeed, the longer on the job, the more cynical some become. It is a form of self-protection,” she explains.
Brown has encountered many wives and families who find it difficult to deal with the fear that their firefighter family member could be seriously injured or, worse, lose his life in the line of duty. There is also the challenge of helping them through bouts of stress and trauma. “As I saw my husband’s reaction when he watched the Twin Towers fall, knowing that his brothers were now dead, I knew he would never be the same again. He felt that loss all the way across the country and did everything he could to show support for his fallen comrades,” recalls Brown.
Within the unique lifestyle that comes with firefighting, families need to adjust to the irregular work hours that go hand-in-hand with the job. Brown recounts the time when she had just given birth to their second baby; her husband elected to work more hours to better provide for their growing family. According to Brown, “I never saw him because he was getting 40 to 60 hours of overtime every two weeks! It was awful. I felt abandoned and I wasn’t able to get many breaks.” Their relationship ultimately reached a breaking point, and they made a mutual decision to change their financial behavior so that they could have more time for each other. That meant getting rid of cable television, ceasing use of their credit cards, and buckling down on their spending.
Linda Willing, cofounder of the international organization Women in the Fire Service, points out that when one of the spouses is in the fire and rescue service, the other partner is often left in the role of being somewhat of a single parent and head of the household. Being a retired firefighter and a National Fire Academy instructor for almost 15 years, she has observed that there is commonly resentment in the household when firefighters regularly miss out on special events and are unable to make firm plans with friends and family. There is also a sense of isolation created when the nonfirefighter partner witnesses the special family-like closeness within the fire and rescue team yet work-related details can never be discussed in their own home.
Additionally, Willing points out that the impacts of this occupation are dramatically different and often more challenging when both people in a partnership are firefighters. Although they have more empathy for each other when it comes to work issues, they often have household problems such as arranging childcare. If they serve different days to have at least one parent at home, this means they never get to see each other during their days off. Willing says, “Firefighters who volunteer for the same agency sometimes have conflicts regarding chain of command. This is especially the case when they have children, where they may also hesitate to respond to the same emergency calls for fear of injury or death of both parents at the same time.”
Resources to Cope
As is commonly understood about any life-threatening profession, the occupational impacts of firefighting come with the territory. However, Brown explains that it is easier to get through the tough times when you know that you are not alone. “When you are first adjusting to anything new, you need to be able to share your struggles, trials, errors, and successes. Knowing you are not alone is huge. Until I started exploring blogs of other firefighter wives, I didn’t think anyone could understand our lifestyle. I learned that I am not alone,” she recalls. When Brown began her blog, she was able to reach out to members of other families who were struggling with the same problems. She had soon built a community where people could share their stories and advice.
Apart from blogging and connecting with online communities, another way Brown sought to cope with the 40- to 60-hour work schedule was marriage counseling. “We couldn’t stop fighting when we did see each other. We were both miserable. He wouldn’t go to counseling sessions at first, but I chose to go anyway for myself. I was committed to the marriage, and I was going to see it through, but I needed to have the tools to deal with our situation. He reluctantly started coming to counseling, and it truly saved our marriage. He and I tell everyone that counseling was the best move we could have made because we were taught how to fight clean instead of dirty,” Brown explains.
Brown and Willing both provide their recommendations for individual relatives, families, friends, and workmates wishing to effectively lend their support to the special firefighters in their lives. For the individual relative, Brown recommends practicing emotional and spiritual management. “So much of supporting myself emotionally is keeping my expectations very low. I could be angry, disappointed, and resentful at him or the fire department, but it truly does no good. It is part of the job,” says Brown. “I could live my life fearful every time he walks out that door, or I could choose to pray to God to protect him, knowing that I have no control over his job. I am at peace because of this attitude. Also, the last thing I would want to do is to pass that fear onto my children,” she explains.
“Most of the immediate and extended family understand little about what firefighters do on a regular basis,” says Willing. She recommends that families create and join fire department programs that give them some insight into what the job entails. Additionally, they could develop and participate in training programs for line-of-duty death (LODD) preparedness to help themselves cope should the worst ever happen in their own family and to be a form of support for other families. Another way to show a family can support the occupation is to promote and participate in workshops and programs for community risk reduction and fire prevention. This encourages appreciation for the work and sacrifice of those in the fire and rescue service.
Social support systems and friends play a key role in being there for firefighters and their loved ones. According to Brown, the more she talks to firefighter wives, the more she sees that the ones who seem the most desperate are the ones who have no family support and no other emotional outlets. They are convinced they are alone and often begin to lose hope. Brown admits that if something were to happen to her husband, she would of course be devastated for herself and her children, “But I know one thing: I would be taken care of not just by my family but by my fire family. They are an amazing group of guys who I can call at any moment, and they would help me. It truly is a brotherhood,” says Brown as she emphasizes the critical role of having friends and support groups.
Beyond the family and related support systems, Willing also provides recommendations for the fire and rescue structure itself. The first thing that must be done is to remove the stigma attached to asking for help. This can be achieved by ensuring strong leadership in relevant sectors to support behavioral health programs for both firefighters and company officers. Willing cites the special efforts of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), called the Chief-to-Chief Network. The members of this organization are a group of senior fire officers who have all experienced the death of a firefighter in the line of duty and are available to give support and advice to leaders who are undergoing the same tragedy in their departments.
When leaders ask for help when they themselves need it, they provide a strong example that can encourage firefighters to participate in behavioral health programs. According to Willing, fire departments can use these programs to educate members about their expectations and provide them with resources to cope with stress, psychological problems, substance abuse, and other related issues. “Company officers, especially, should be enlisted in these efforts because they are the ones who tend to notice significant changes in an individual at the earliest point in time,” she suggests. These programs can exist on several levels, says Willing, and include trained peer support team members, formal education on behavioral health issues for all members, access to skilled counseling, and intervention services.
Embracing Stress First Aid
According to the NFFF, studies have indicated that the manner in which firefighters have been given psychological support has not always been effective. This propelled the foundation to develop Life Safety Initiative #13, which is a model derived from scientific data from military medicine, community psychology, and decades of firefighter and EMS personnel experience. This initiative includes Stress First Aid (SFA), which is a set of tools that can be used to help restore the health of firefighters and rescue personnel after stress reactions.
The occupation of firefighting is an essential service within any community. It is a passion and a calling for those drawn to this vocation and, therefore, is not a profession that most firefighters could easily walk away from. However, with this job comes many challenges that affect not only the individual but also those closest to them. Managing one’s emotions and stress responses, surrounding oneself with solid support systems, gaining an understanding of the inner workings of the occupation, and participating in health behavior programs are all activities that can help reduce the occupational burden for firefighters and their loved ones.