Book Excerpt: Fully Involved: A Guide for Being in a Relationship with a Firefighter
Mynda Ohs shares advice based on her own marriage to a firefighter and her background in counseling first responders
In Fully Involved: A Guide for Being in a Relationship with a Firefighter, Mynda Ohs, PhD, shares her experiences of 22 years of marriage to a firefighter as well as her expertise as a practicing clinician who specializes in counseling both first responders and couples. From her unique point of view and through her own experiences and those of her family and others, Ohs details everything a firefighter’s significant other faces: the firefighter’s burnout, hypervigilance, compassion fatigue, and PTSD as well as the stress of long absences and the ever-present danger of a line-of-duty death. Following is an excerpt from Chapter 1: You Didn’t Fall for an Alien from Another Planet – Just Someone from Another World.
What’s it like being a firefighter, and why is it harder for firefighters, men and women, to be average Joes and Janes at home?
I know this question is one that someone in a relationship with a firefighter can’t always answer. One reason is that firefighters are rarely the most communicative people at home, even though they communicate well at work. That’s the weird thing about it. They must be able to communicate every little thing to each other, because their lives depend on knowing where everyone is and what everyone is doing at all times. Their career isn’t like any other; neither their training nor their culture encourages them to share their feelings. It’s a gift and a curse, really. It’s a survival skill. They have to deal with the horrible things they see on a daily basis. Their behavior is the result of having to separate from their emotions to get the job done and handle an emergency. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work at home with the people they love.
More importantly, at least until they’ve been in a relationship with a firefighter for a long time, most “normal” people—pretty much all of us who aren’t firefighters—don’t realize they’re involved with someone from another world. That world is the Fire World. When you become part of a firefighter couple or a firefighter family, you’re in that world, a stranger in a strange land.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but think of it this way: if you were to go live in China, what would you be willing to do to fit in and feel a part of your new home? You would learn the language, religious beliefs, and cultural practices. You might go and visit popular tourist sites or make new friends.
This is the same attitude you need to adopt when you decide to be in a relationship with a firefighter.
Why did your partner decide to become a firefighter? Mine kind of fell into it. His family moved from the Bay Area to a small town in Northern California that relied heavily on volunteer firefighters. There was a large fire near his house, and he ended up helping out by doing many of the less glamorous things. But he was hooked—charged up and excited. Filthy and tired, he asked the chief if there was a way he could get more involved. He joined them as a “junior” firefighter, allowed to do only what was basically the dirty work and cleanup. His dad actually had to drive him to the scenes until he got his driver’s license—and eventually got involved as well. By eighteen, Jeff was taking classes to start what would be his career.
The Three Facets of a Firefighter’s Work World
The first step in surviving as a fire service significant other is to gain an objective perspective of what it’s like to be a firefighter. Let’s start by taking a look at the three facets of a firefighter’s work world, because every workday will fall into one of these categories:
- Routine day at the fire station
- Busy call day
- Fire season
Routine days at the fire station might be calm, as far as runs go, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t busy in their own way. Firefighters always have plenty to do; their work lives are largely planned out. And even though they’re no longer tasked with all the chores that were handed to them when they were rookies (they have another set of rookies for those now), it’s not about sitting around rehashing past calls or playing cards or video games.
All firefighters have specific stationhouse maintenance jobs, much like roommates do. They also have training and drills to follow and carry out, along with regular station inspections and the preparations for them.
At the station, the crew interacts much as a family does—because this is a family, the “fire family.” They joke and talk, are together constantly, and form strong bonds. They’re still “littermates,” just as they were at the academy, because they don’t go home for days on end. The basic schedules (not including overtime days, which will add to these already long days) are:
- the 48/96— forty-eight hours on and ninety-six hours off
- the Kelly One, also known as the 4/4 or 4/6—a four-day set on and four or six days off
- the Kelly Two, or the 3/4—a three-day set on and four days off
Every schedule means the firefighter spends almost as much time at the station, day and night, as at home. This impacts the firefighter family as much as, if not even more than, the firefighter.
Seriously. When you’re involved with a firefighter, you’ll never be sympathetic to the complaints of nine-to-fivers or their partners again. I mean, they get to lead normal lives!
Even though a great deal of time is spent at the station on routine days, they still get called out; how much depends on how busy the station is. Especially at the busier stations—and there is always one that’s the busiest—the crew has little downtime and rarely gets to sleep soundly through the night. Some people prefer the busy stations, love the pace, and don’t like if they get detailed out to a quieter station temporarily to fill a gap. We also have what we call “retirement stations,” popular with older firefighters, who prefer the slower pace.
If you’re a significant other, you probably already know that stations have a captain who is in charge of the station. There are firefighter-paramedics, who are responsible for running medical aids as well as fighting fires. An engineer has special training and qualifications to drive the engines and trucks. There are also tiller operators that sit in the very back of a tiller truck and drive just the back end. Finally, there are firefighters who fight fire, assist in medical aids, and provide any support the crew needs.
It’s important to know the organizational structure because it impacts the way firefighters think. They’re in an environment with a paramilitary structure, with specific duties and strict rules for handling situations. This shapes their personalities, and they bring those personalities home—to you, the person waiting for someone to breeze through the door and cheerily call out, as Desi always did, “Lucy, I’m home!”
Moving along to a busy call day, that denotes a day when the calls keep coming in and the ambulances/rescues or fire trucks keep going out. Even on days with no calls or just an occasional non-critical one, a firefighter spends the day on edge, tensed for a call. That’s hypervigilance, which we’ll come back to later, and it goes with the job. Even in bed, the firefighter is waiting in an anticipatory one-eye-open kind of sleep. Don’t get fooled if your firefighter says they slept all night. Remember, it’s not restful sleep, it’s on-edge, waiting-for-a-call sleep.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I would call Jeff first thing in the morning and ask, “Did you sleep last night?” The answer to this one question, along with the tone of his voice, would tell me what kind of day we were going to have. Early in our marriage, if he said he’d slept, I would think, “Cool! We’re going to have a good day.” However, that’s not always the case, and it caused arguments. I would say, “But you slept—why are you so tired?”
On busy days, there are many calls, and some of them are always serious calls. Anything termed a serious call is taken very seriously, because at least 10 percent of them could turn out to be critical, matters of life and death. On the other hand, many of the calls are BS calls (and firefighters put this even more strongly—no surprise there). In a nutshell: you simply would not believe the ridiculous things people call 911 for.
Someone might call at two in the morning to say they feel ill and need help immediately. Then it turns out they have the flu, have had the flu for three whole days, and are well on the way to getting better. This ends with an adrenaline-charged firefighter thinking furiously, Are you kidding? I could be sleeping! In a way, these nuisance calls are harder to deal with than the serious calls, because with a serious call, you go into full-out work mode. You know what has to be done and you do it. With a BS call, you feel a surge with no action mode to follow, just frustration and irritation.
All this means that the busier the shift, the more it affects the firefighter, who has been in fight-or-flight mode—work brain mode—for the past twenty-four hours or more upon arriving at home, sweet home. A firefighter in work brain mode is fast and funny, with laser-sharp attention. Work brain is flooded with adrenaline, with an increased heart rate, a sharper sense of being alive. But when the body is working at such overdrive, such biological overdrive, there is only one way for it to go. And that way is down, into exhaustion and crashing. So, now we have home brain hitting that downward slope
Fully Involved: A Guide for Being in a Relationship with a Firefighter
©2019 by Mynda Ohs
About the Author
Mynda Ohs is a recognized expert and speaker on firefighter wellness issues, with over 14 years of experience in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Ohs is a former EMT whose life changed when she married a firefighter, who is now a Southern California battalion chief. Ohs went back to school and garnered two master’s degrees followed by a PhD in family studies from Loma Linda University. She has provided care and counseling in the aftermath of numerous line-of-duty deaths, the San Bernardino terrorist attack, the Las Vegas massacre, the Montecito mudslides, and many on-site critical incident situations. A licensed marriage and family therapist, Ohs has her own practice, which caters to first responders and their families only. More information can be found at www.fullyinvolvedlife.com.