Firefighter divorce: 3 important facts

The data on how often firefighters divorce may surprise you, and it offers three interesting take-away points


Firefighters have higher rates of divorce than the general population.

It's a "fact" I've heard repeated across the country from personnel of all different ranks. The questions are: Is it true or just a myth? And, does it matter?

The answer to the first question is yes and no. It doesn't appear to be true for male firefighters, but it is for female firefighters.

To learn this, we pooled data from our two large AFG-funded cohort studies. Data was provided by 1,456 firefighters in 31 departments across the country.

Our sample had a larger number of firefighters who were in the youngest age bracket (19 to 29 years old) than the general population data that was available. Because young firefighters are more likely to be unmarried (45 percent of males and 64.3 percent of females), we had to age-adjust the rates to be able to compare them with the general population rates.

In our sample, 77 percent of male firefighters were currently married and 11.8 percent were currently divorced. This compared to 57.5 percent married in the U.S. population and 9.4 percent divorced.

For female firefighters, the rate of current marriage was 42.6 percent and current divorce was 32.1 percent, compared with 55.4 percent married and 10.4 percent currently divorced in the general population.

Multiple marriages
Admittedly, current marital status might not tell the whole picture, especially if firefighters who get divorced tend to remarry. According to a nationally representative sample by the Barna Group in 2008, 25 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one divorce. Among married people, 33 percent have had at least one divorce.

When you look at men in the fire service, 19.6 percent have had one divorce and, among married men in the fire service, 24.4 percent have had at least one divorce.

On the other hand, women firefighters in our sample had a higher rate, with the prevalence of ever having divorced being 40 percent. The prevalence of married women having a past divorce was 27.3 percent.

The results are consistent with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2009, Drs. McCoy and Aamodt investigated the divorce rates among those married within different occupational groups. They found the divorce rate for firefighters who had been married was 14.1 percent, which was similar to law enforcement personnel (14.5 percent).

However, both were lower than the general U.S. population of 16.4 percent. Military members, on the other hand, had higher divorce rates (18.7 percent) than the general population. Occupations with the highest divorce rates were dancers and choreographers (43.1 percent), bartenders (38.4 percent), and massage therapists (38.2 percent).

Not a predictor
One shortcoming of the Census Bureau data is that it was not divided by gender — so the lower rates of divorce, while accurate for male firefighters, is likely to be inaccurate for females firefighters.

But back to the second question: Does it matter that the well-known "fact" doesn't appear to be accurate? Again, the answer is yes and no.

It is useful data if you want to share it with your spouse — as I have heard a few people will be doing — to prove that you are right that divorce rates are not higher among firefighters.

However, it is not as useful in predicting whether any one marriage will last or end in divorce. Statistics speak to the general trends among groups, but having a higher or lower chance of divorce than other groups or the general population doesn't determine or predict any one divorce.

On the other hand, there are some key take-away points from the study findings.

Three things
First, the high rates of divorce among female firefighters is an important finding and highlights how being a member of the fire service can be particularly stressful on family lives for women.

The sample of women was small. So, it is possible that women who are already divorced are more likely to become firefighters. Further research is needed to more closely examine this issue.

Second, the findings say a good deal about the positive impact being a member of the fire service can have for men. While past speculation suggested that firefighters get divorced at high rates because of the stress of firefighting, lower rates of divorce suggest that maybe male firefighters are actually exceptionally resilient.

Being able to manage the stress of firefighting and balancing that with the stress of marriage and family speaks to the firefighters' coping skills. The culture of the fire service also might be a benefit for the wives of male firefighters, in that being a part of the fire service family might minimize the chances of divorce.

Third, the findings highlight the need to be careful in assuming that "we know what we know." While a quick survey of a crew, shift or department may suggest that everyone is doing or not doing something, it might provide us with biased information.

Sometimes, we see what we expect to see and, just because something is true for one crew, shift or department, it doesn't necessarily make it true for the fire service in general.

Overall, the findings speak to the importance of looking at the data objectively, asking questions and being willing to see the data as the data.

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