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‘Our families are the forgotten few’: Firefighters open up about the job’s impact on family

Solutions to navigate the most common family-centric concerns voiced by firefighters

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From mandatory overtime to the struggle for work-life balance, the demands on firefighters can create significant challenges for firefighter families. These issues were highlighted in the latest What Firefighters Want project, revealing heartfelt affirmations like, “Family is everything, the top priority” and “My family is the one thing more important to me than my job, and it’s hard to balance.”

This growing tension between professional commitments and family life raises critical questions about the future of firefighting. With societal values shifting toward a greater emphasis on work-life balance, especially among younger generations, the fire service faces further challenges in recruitment and retention. This article aims to expose and address some of these concerns, offering insights on how best to navigate the most common challenges expressed in the survey.

Balancing work demands with family time

Firefighters face a significant challenge that strikes at the heart of their family lives: the constant juggle between the demands of their job and precious time with loved ones. With mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages for paid members and the endless on-call duty for volunteers, firefighters find themselves away from home more often than they’d like. While individual firefighters have limited control over these systemic staffing problems, they bear the brunt of the consequences. This reality is voiced through their experiences:

  • “Because we don’t have enough people and I have to work a lot of extra hours, I don’t get to spend as much time at home as I want to. It’s really tough on my family.”
  • “All the training, emergency calls, fundraising, and paperwork mean I’m away from my family more than I should be.”

The situation is further compounded by safety concerns:

  • “We’re so short on staff that it makes our job riskier and my family worries more when I’m at work. I have to work extra hours I didn’t plan for, and it’s hard to sync up with my family’s schedule.”

The emotional toll is palpable:

  • “I have to work so much overtime, my kids cry as I leave to work for another 6- or 7-day stint. It is not sustainable and unfair to my family.”

Possible solutions: It’s crucial for firefighters and their families to find practical ways to manage the demands placed upon them. This means devising strategies to maintain and strengthen familial connections and relationships even during tough times. Focusing on what can be controlled is key.

  • Focus on quality over quantity: When you’re home, it’s all about making those moments count. Practice turning off any alerts you have associated with work calls or emails. Even better, how about leaving your phone in a different room? This way, you can give your full attention to your family, showing them they’re your number one when you’re there. If you’re in a position where you can’t ever switch off from work mode, it might be time for your department’s leaders to take a second look at how things are organized. Everyone needs a chance to unplug and relax. Otherwise, burnout could become a big problem, and losing more staff is something no one wants.
  • Stay engaged while away: Find ways to remain involved in family life, even when not physically present. Check-ins, whether through calls, texts or video messages, especially regarding important events, can help maintain a sense of connection. And don’t forget to catch up on the small things too. If something happened while you were away, take note and ask about it when you get back. It might seem like old news to them because it happened a few days ago, but taking the time to talk about it shows you really care. This helps keep your bond strong, ensuring you are part of the family’s highs and lows, no matter where you are.
  • Manage the non-mandatory work commitments: Be careful with taking on extra non-mandatory work like overtime or special assignments. It’s important to think about how this extra work affects the time you have with your family. Talk with your family to figure out what you all can handle together. Remember, what works for your family now might change in the future. Be especially careful not to make a habit out of relying too much on the financial support from extra shifts, because you might find yourself in a tough spot, feeling like you have to keep working more, even when you and your family wish you could just be at home.
  • Incorporate your family into your work when possible: Bringing your family into your work life can make a big difference, especially during those times when you’re stuck with back-to-back shifts. Invite them to the fire station for a meal or just to hang out and see your workplace. It’s a perfect opportunity for them to get a glimpse into your world and spend some quality time together. Plus, it helps them understand more about what you do every day. Encouraging these visits can also come from the top, with fire department leaders promoting family inclusion as part of their support system. This approach not only strengthens family bonds but also emphasizes the importance of maintaining that connection, even when work gets tough.

Family stressors

Firefighter families often deal with unique stressors due to the nature of the job. Concerns about safety, unexpected shifts and the impact of the job on family life are common themes that emerge from their experiences.

Many families live in a constant state of worry every time their firefighter goes to work:

  • “My spouse is endlessly worried every time I go to work.” This anxiety is compounded when firefighters are away for extended periods, such as 24-hour shifts, leaving them unable to assist with family responsibilities or emergencies. The unpredictability of the job, including being called away in the middle of the night for potentially dangerous tasks, not only disrupts the firefighters’ lives but also the peace of their families.”

Furthermore, the stress doesn’t just stop with worry over physical safety; it extends to logistical challenges such as finding last-minute childcare or having to cancel family plans unexpectedly due to work demands. Firefighters feel that their families are “the forgotten few,” with the job showing little concern for the emotional and logistical turmoil faced by their loved ones. This constant intertwining of work stress with family life creates a heavy burden on both firefighters and their families.

Possible solutions: By tackling these stressors head-on and implementing proactive strategies, firefighter families can build resilience and find a sense of stability amidst the known challenges of this demanding profession.

  • Develop a strong support network: As much as firefighters want to be there for their families in times of challenge, the reality is that there will be many occasions where they cannot be or at least cannot be there immediately. Having a reliable support system at home to support the family while the firefighter is away is crucial. This can include extended family, friends, neighbors or paid services that can step in to help with childcare, transportation, or home emergencies when unexpected work demands or home challenges arise. Knowing there are trusted people who can assist at a moment’s notice, that your family can very easily and comfortably call upon, can alleviate some of the family stress associated with the unpredictability of a firefighter’s schedule.
  • Connect with the larger mission: It’s important for both firefighters and their families to remember the bigger picture and the reasons behind the sacrifices they make. This can help with any built-up resentment towards the job. Whether it’s the fulfillment of serving the community, helping those in need, or achieving personal dreams, focusing on these broader goals can provide a sense of purpose and resilience. By seeing themselves as part of something larger and more meaningful, families can find strength in their shared commitment to the mission.
  • Spouses support: The non-firefighter spouse will be managing more at home when the firefighter has more demands at work and unexpected mandatory shifts. The important thing is that there is a plan in place for the non-firefighter spouse to still be able to manage their own self-care and work schedule even if the firefighter doesn’t make it home that day. This can alleviate a lot of the family stress that comes with unexpected changes.
  • Address safety concerns together: Openly discussing the inherent risks of the profession and establishing ways to manage these fears is vital. This might include regular safety briefings from the firefighter to their family, engaging in community or departmental support groups, or even seeking professional counseling to help navigate the emotional challenges of living with risk.

Personal health concerns

Firefighters carry the weight of knowing that the stresses and health risks of their job might not just affect them now but could also impact their ability to enjoy a healthy retirement with their families:

  • “Personal health is always a concern so after retirement I can enjoy the time left with my family and not in hospital or worse.”

Others worry about the long-term effects of their job on their health and family life:

  • “The risks can affect me and my family, even after I retire or leave the department.”

The responsibility of ensuring their crew’s safety adds another layer of stress:

  • “I have the responsibility to keep my crew safe. That’s stress to me on every call we run. That stress adds up and impacts my family and my personal health.”

Possible solutions: The fear of chronic health issues or being unable to fully engage with family life due to the physical and emotional toll of firefighting is a real concern. The cumulative effect of these job-related stressors can even make being present and engaged at home challenging, as fatigue from work can leave them too tired and irritable to connect with their family at home. There are ways to address this, though.

  • Prioritize personal resilience and health: Firefighters should view their own health and wellbeing as a critical aspect of their ability to perform their duties and enjoy life outside of work. This means adopting healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating nutritious meals, engaging in regular physical activity, ensuring adequate rest, and finding time for hobbies and relaxation. These practices need to be viewed as more essential for firefighters than other professions due to the demanding nature of their work.
  • Be proactive with protective gear and best practices: Taking extra precautions with personal protective equipment and staying informed about the latest safety protocols can mitigate some of the physical risks associated with firefighting. We know a lot more now and learn new things every day, yet many firefighters still don’t apply what we know to improve their long-term health. Making smart decisions on duty not only protects them in the short term but also helps reduce the risk of long-term health issues.
  • Seek support for stress management: Firefighters should not hesitate to seek support for managing stress, whether through departmental resources, counseling or support groups. Addressing mental and emotional wellbeing is just as important as physical health in ensuring a fulfilling life both on and off the job.

Final thoughts

The demanding nature of firefighting inevitably brings challenges and stressors. The irregular schedules, prolonged absences and inherent dangers of the profession can strain even the strongest of family bonds. Recognizing these realities is crucial, both for fire departments and the families themselves. By acknowledging the difficulties faced by firefighters, departments can take proactive steps to offer support and implement solutions that address these challenges. Providing resources to help families cope, whether through flexible scheduling options, mental health support or family-inclusive events, can make a significant difference in the lives of firefighters and their loved ones. Furthermore, showing that a department values the family lives of its firefighters and is committed to supporting them through the unique challenges they face can enhance retention and recruitment efforts. Ultimately, fostering an environment where firefighters feel supported both in their professional and personal lives can lead to a more resilient and dedicated workforce, ready to serve their communities with the backing of their families.

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Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.” For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.