How to help firefighter families
Understand the seven sources of frustration among firefighter families, plus three simple ways to mitigate common stressors
Sometimes the only thing harder than being a firefighter is being part of a firefighter’s family. Most firefighters know this on some level. They understand that it can actually be much less stressful to go on dangerous calls than to worry about someone who you love being in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, firefighter families often deal with that stress with little support or understanding from those around them.
Some fire service organizations have taken steps to provide support for family members of firefighters. They may offer orientation programs for families of new recruits. Others extend department- or city-sponsored counseling services to immediate family members. There are even residential programs designed around the needs of firefighter families, such as SOS (Spouse and Significant Others) through the First Responder Support Network.
Unfortunately, these programs are the exception rather than the rule, and many have been curtailed due to COVID protocols. But other sources of information and support are more consistently available, such as blogs, online support groups, and publications.
7 sources of stress
“I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know” by psychologist Ellen Kirschman (now in its second printing) contains many insights and tips for firefighters and their loved ones. Dr. Kirschman outlines the following seven sources of potential stress and misunderstanding that need to be kept in mind by all firefighters as they coordinate their work with their family lives:
- The firehouse family. Firefighters often describe their coworkers as family. It’s good that many firefighters have this strong connection and support system with those who understand exactly what they are experiencing. But family members may feel left out or even jealous when the firehouse family seems to take precedence over the family that is waiting at home.
- Shift work and separation. A firefighter’s schedule can be great for a single person, but add in family members and things get a lot more complicated. Separations of 24-48 hours or longer put a strain on relationships when the partner at home must take sole responsibility for everything, including childcare. Firefighters can become distanced from children as they miss significant events due to work obligations. And all these issues are even more challenging when both in a relationship are firefighters, either working the same or opposite schedules.
- Long hours. Firefighters typically work 48-56 hours per week but often spend many more hours away from home due to overtime, volunteer responsibilities and other work-related obligations. They are often tired when they finally do get home. Firefighters may arrive home after 50-plus hours away and the first thing they say to their partners is that they need to take a nap until mid-afternoon. This will not go over well with someone who has been on their own for two days with kids, plumber appointments, grocery shopping, meal planning and all the other work that goes with keeping a house and home together.
- Unpredictable schedules. Even the most predictable firefighter’s schedule changes by the week. Volunteers, on-call firefighters, wildland firefighters – many of these groups have no set work schedule at all. This lack of predictability makes any kind of future planning difficult and can put great strain on relationships.
- Worry. Of course, firefighters’ family members worry about them. They read the news. They hear stories. They watch fire shows on TV. They have some idea what can happen, and they feel helpless. They know that any day their firefighter family members go to work could be the worst day of all their lives. And unlike firefighters, they may have few people with whom they can share these concerns.
- Public scrutiny. More than ever, firefighters are the focus of public attention, for better and for worse. The terrible events of 9/11 gave firefighters media attention they never had before. Social media platforms amplify this attention. This means that when firefighters do something good, they are likely to get lots of attention for it. On the other hand, when firefighters behave badly, it can reflect on others far beyond their own crew or department. Adjusting to a world where everyone has a camera and a website has been hard for both firefighters and their families. But it is the reality of the world we live in now.
- Organizational stress. There are many ways, aside from emergency response, that a firefighter’s job may be stressful. Sharing close quarters with others, frustrations with management, a bad experience with a coworker or members of the public – these things can be the source of stress and the need for firefighters to vent when back at home. But firefighters need to be conscious that such venting, when not balanced with other more positive experiences, can create the impression among family members that the job is entirely frustrating and negative. As a result, family members may begin to advocate that their loved one find a different job or vocation. The firefighter could take this attitude as a sign they are no longer being supported at home. It’s not hard to see how this dynamic could go downhill quickly.
How to mitigate family stress
Information, communication and empathy are key to mitigating stress within a firefighter’s family.
Explain job realities: Real firefighting isn’t like what we see on TV and in the movies. All firefighters know this, but their families may not. Family members need to know what the job really entails, and what equipment and procedures are in place to keep their loved ones safe at work. They also need to understand how the use of safety equipment and procedures protects family members at home as well. This information can be transmitted through formal departmental programs designed for families, but just as effectively, can be conveyed through routine, straightforward conversations about the job.
Be honest: But effective communication is not just about the technical aspect of the job. Firefighters need to be honest with their family members about how the job affects them. Some firefighters think they are protecting their families when they suppress their feelings and withhold information. But this behavior usually only makes things worse. Be honest. If you’ve had a tough shift, you can at least say something like this: “If I seem distant today, it’s because we had a tough call with a child last night. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I’ll let you know when I am.”
Display empathy: Finally, it is important to recognize that those at home have a difficult and important role to play. They are taking care of children, attending family events on their own, maintaining the household, arranging for necessary maintenance, and managing countless other duties while the firefighter is away at work. Expressing empathy can go a long way in keeping relationships healthy. Some examples: “I know it was hard to schedule the electrician yesterday. I really appreciate that you got it done.” “I know you’re disappointed I couldn’t be at your school concert last night. I was disappointed, too. I’ll do everything I can to be there next time.”
Firefighting is a stressful job and firefighters need the support and understanding of their family members to be successful in the long haul. But those family members need support, too. Acknowledging that need is the first step toward maintaining healthy relationships.