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Why families of first responders are the silent victims

They may never feel the heat of the fire, but they can feel our reactions

Firefighter trauma

Our families walk this journey with us, but they are the silent victims when things don’t go so well.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

This is a guest post from former firefighter Nick Halmasy, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is under review to become a psychotherapist. Check out his website at

By Nick Halmasy

I come from a short line of first responders. My father was, and still is, a serving member of a fire department. I’ve recently retired due to life circumstances; however, the “fire” (excuse my pun) hasn’t died in me yet!

I thought that the 4 a.m. tones and my dad being gone for long periods of time without explanation were normal. So, I didn’t think of my significant other much with regards to the impact this had on her when she came into my life.

I’ve been in the field of psychology for too long for this to shock me, but it did. I remember leaving my pager on the table at my home for my significant other to listen to while we were out. When I came home, the pager was off and in another room. “Don’t you ever leave that thing on again,” I was scolded.

And, I didn’t.

The anxiety that it created was apparent, and that moment has not left me. What about those we leave behind when we rush to a call or leave for work?

Fast-forward a few years, and in Ontario we are looking at legislated coverage for PTSD diagnosis. The Road to Mental Readiness program is being introduced for police and fire, with paramedics next on the list. But, there is one particularly glaring point about all this.

None of it includes the family.

They suffer sleepless nights alongside us. Sometimes, for us rural departments, they are the ones organizing food and drinks when we are faced with a fire that just won’t quit. Our partners worry about us, even when they tell us they don’t. They carry the burden alongside us. We need them to be strong. If they aren’t, then we have a higher likelihood of succumbing to the stress we encounter.

They may never feel the heat of the fire or the fear of staring into the wrong end of a weapon, but they can feel our reactions. We do the best to try and protect them, but they can always tell.

And, they can also feel guilty about relying on us when they are having a bad day. They are reluctant to vent to us or share the stress of everyday life with us because of their perception of our roles.

They walk this journey with us, but they are the silent victims when things don’t go so well.

PTSD is a real problem for first responders. But while you are experiencing increased depressive moods, hypervigilance, nightmares that keep you up or keep you from trying to sleep, and increase in the use of substances like alcohol or tobacco, the family members are watching.

And, while your irritability climbs to levels that are almost unbearable and all you want and seek is relief by whatever means possible, the family is there.

This continues for days, then a week, and sometimes persists on for longer as your family watches from a helpless distance.

And, what can they do?

Yet, no one is talking about them. Or, more importantly, to them. Why are there no large conferences or seminars aimed at the mental health of our family members? No far-reaching groups and programs aimed at the significant relationship between the first responder and their family?

Research has begun to show some pretty scary statistics. Like, if a parent is suffering from PTSD, their children can begin to show the very same signs. And there are endless studies that look at “compassion fatigue” and “secondary trauma” in first responders as well as the therapists, counselors and social workers who walk with people through their trauma. And yet, surprisingly, there is little research on the impact these very same things have on the family.

There has been a steady stream of media coverage on the impacts of PTSD on the first responder. Each, as you’ve guessed, deals only with that particular person.

We put a lot of strain on our family members by pursuing our dreams and passions to engage in one of the most dangerous and satisfying careers there is. It’s time to talk about how PTSD impacts them, too.

This article, originally published January 2016, has been updated.


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