I Love A Fire Fighter
What the Family Needs to Know
By Ellen Kirschman
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2004 Ellen Kirschman
All rights reserved.
Beepers in Your Bedroom
The Givens and Realities of the Fire Service
Certain challenges face fire fighters and their families. Some of these are not unique to the fire service or even to other emergency responders. This is a paradox. On the one hand, fire fighters and their families occupy a special place in society. On the other hand, it is too limiting and isolating to say that no one else understands their challenges. Despite widespread use of easy slogans about the sanctity of family life and family values, our society does too little to support working families in many occupations.
When I interviewed fire fighters and their families I tried to identify themes that came up repeatedly. I called these themes "givens" because they are aspects of the fire service that probably won't ever change much. The first is learning to share your loved one with the firehouse family. The second is dealing with shift work and separations. The third is coping with long hours at work. The fourth is dealing with unpredictable schedules and emergencies. The fifth is worry. And the sixth is living with public scrutiny.
THE FIREHOUSE FAMILY: MARRIED TO THE JOB
Maybe it's my age, maybe it's my gender, but a lot of what occurs in the fire service seems to me to have something to do with the way men relate to one another and how they behave in groups. This is similar to the behavior observed in other mostly male occupations like the military, athletics, the construction trades, and so on. (Even women fire fighters show some of these traits as they try to fit into work cultures designed by men.)
Obviously there are good and bad aspects to this bonding—as you'll learn from the following stories—but the good seems to outweigh the bad. Real families are usually reluctant to share their fire fighter with his or her firehouse family, but, as I discovered, most do eventually grow accustomed to this dual allegiance and some even learn to use it their advantage. On the positive side, being part of the firehouse family almost guarantees that you will have a safety net in times of crisis. Fire fighters are great at providing social and practical support to each other's families. Belonging to the firehouse family also means you get to share in the pride of being part of an elite and esteemed profession. You will have the respect and admiration of your community, and your children will get the same respect and admiration from their peers.
In the beginning, it takes some getting used to the fact that fire fighters consider the fire service their second family but sometimes behave as though it is their first. Career and volunteer fire fighters alike describe the fire station as a place to hang out, rest up from their "real jobs," escape from their "real families," and avoid the "honey do" list waiting for them at home. They say this only half in jest. It is clear that for some the firehouse is a male sanctuary in peril of disappearing as women join the fire service: a place where "boys can be boys," tell crude jokes, and play with trucks and tools.
Take a look into one urban firehouse in the Northeast. It's shift change and there are a lot of fire fighters milling around, some getting ready to leave, others just coming in. Pete grabs a cup of coffee and throws himself in a lounge chair feigning utter exhaustion. "I need a rest," he says. "My wife has been running me ragged. The only time I get to sit down is when I'm working." Pete has an electrical contracting business, three small children, and a wife who loves to garden. When he's home it's nonstop activity. By comparison, work as a fire fighter is a breeze and he refers to it as his "part-time job."
"Listen up, Lenny, you can still change your mind," someone says to a recently engaged fire fighter.
"Hey, leave him alone, he's still in lust," shouts Pete.
"Yo, Lenny," someone else chimes in. "Do you know the best way to cure a nymphomaniac? Marry her!"
Everyone in the room laughs. They've all heard it before and it still strikes them as funny. This is the warm-up, a time to check each other out. Who's in a good mood, who had a foul four days off? Gauging each other's mood is important; these guys are going to be together for the rest of the shift. Working fire fighters never go anywhere alone: when one goes, they all go. When they shop for lunch and dinner, they travel in pods chained together by possibility, ready to spring into action if and when they are dispatched to a call. Living, training, eating, risking, and relaxing on and off duty with the same group of people year in and year out breeds an intimacy that comes close to the intimacy one usually shares with real family. After a while everybody knows everybody's moods and personal habits.
There are major benefits to being part of such a close and often closed community, one that has it's own values, rituals, norms, language, and humor. For one thing, it's a very powerful support system and consequently a robust buffer against stress. One study of 1,700 fire fighters and fire fighter/paramedics concluded that even though at-home social support was more highly rated than at-work support, at-work social support had a more positive influence on job satisfaction, the perception of occupational stress, and stress-related health outcomes. This is because at-work support is more immediate, more timely, and more relevant. When a fellow fire fighter/paramedic says you've done a good job, the presumption is that he or she really knows what a "good job" is.
Part of the price of belonging to this family is a shift in identity from "me" to "we," the same shift that needs to happen in a good marriage or any other significant relationship. That means most fire fighters have dual allegiances. It can be stressful trying to be loyal to two families and to fill two roles like fire fighter and parent. On the other hand, current research suggests that multiple roles are actually beneficial to mental, physical, and relationship health. Look at these documented findings on multiple roles:
The negatives and dissatisfactions of one role are buffered by the positives and satisfactions of another role.
There are increased opportunities for social support. People who have extensive on-the-job networks are more satisfied with their family life and childcare arrangements, plus their children are healthier and do better in school.
There are increased opportunities to experience success.
There are expanded opportunities to see things from different perspectives and receive feedback from varied sources.
A person's sense of self can broaden and become more multidimensional.
Flexible gender roles can lead to more closeness, sharing, and friendship between partners, especially those with children.
Workers who are married with children have more family-to-work conflict than single or childless workers, but their family life has far more positive effects on their work. Support from home helps them deal with work problems and feel more confident.
The challenge for fire fighter families is to figure out how to reap the benefits of their multiple roles. Annual social events at the firehouse do not come close to providing families with the same level of camaraderie and support that fire fighters get, or that their families say they want. Families need to get together with each other and also be included in departmental activities like trainings, briefings, and wellness programs.
Learning to Play Second Fiddle
Real fire fighter families commonly feel as though they play second fiddle to the work family. It's easy to see how this happens. Who wouldn't feel abandoned when her or his fire fighter spouse leaps up in the middle of dinner to respond to a call, has to work during important family events, has a second job to support his chosen first job, gets in a minor accident with you in the car and seems more concerned about the other driver's injuries than yours, or spends what little time she has at home listening to the scanner? Take heart, you may not always feel this way. Many spouses report that life is hardest in the beginning, especially with small children to raise. Ultimately they grow accustomed to the schedules and the separations, even the fear, because they have to. Among other things, pride in their mates' devotion to helping others makes it easier to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and resentment.
Rachel began dating Mark, a volunteer fire fighter, when they were both in their mid-thirties. She'd never known a fire fighter before. Each of them had been divorced, so they were taking things slowly. Mark was especially cautious about revealing the depths of his feelings. The first time he dared tell Rachel he loved her they were lying in bed. No sooner did he declare his love than the alarm went off and he scrambled into his clothes and flew out the door. He came back in an hour, apologized for his abrupt departure, took off his clothes, and climbed back into bed, reassuring Rachel that such late-night interruptions were rare. As soon as he lay down, the alarm went off again, and once more he dashed out the door. When he came home after the third alarm, Rachel was seriously doubting that this was the life for her.
At the time Rachel thought she would never get used to Mark going out and leaving her alone in the middle of the night. She found it especially difficult during this early "romantic" period. Twenty years later, he wakes her up while getting into bed and she asks him if he's just been to the bathroom—only to learn that he's been out of the house for six hours!
Mark is now a career fire fighter and deputy chief of operations. Rachel still doesn't like it when his pager goes off in the middle of the night because she doesn't easily fall back to sleep when he's out on a call. It's not that she's afraid: she knows his job is to run the scene, not to run into the fire. But she hates getting comfy in bed expecting him to be home as planned at 11:00 P.M., only to have him call and say he won't be there until 1:00A.M. When he does come in around 2:00 A.M., he wakes her out of a sound sleep. What helps is that Rachel recognized early on that the qualities she loves about Mark are the same attributes that made him want to be a fire fighter: his desire to help and his sensitivity to others.
It's inevitable: in some ways, and at some times, you are going to feel as if your mate loves his or her job more than he or she loves you. Ironically, the dedication, commitment, and pride that are so much a part of the tradition and culture of the fire service may be the very things that irritate and alienate fire fighter families. Being a fire fighter is not just a job, it's an identity, a beloved hobby, and, for good and bad, a second family. That doesn't mean that fire fighters don't have room to love their real families, but it does mean that your relationship can feel a little crowded. You need plenty of self-worth and independence to share so much of your life. A sense of humor also helps.
Rita Brunacini, wife of Alan Brunicini, chief of the Phoenix, Arizona fire department, was having one of those days when she was feeling like a second fiddle. She was angry and confronted her husband. "I think you love Fire Station 1 more than you love me," she complained. "Yes, I do," he admitted, "but I love you more than Fire Station 2."
It sounds strange, but it can be liberating to come to terms with the fact that your mate is crazy about fire paraphernalia and always will be. You don't have to love fire trucks yourself, but it helps to make an effort to share and understand the commitment and pride that your fire fighter feels about his or her chosen profession.
Every family is different and every family has to figure out how best to live with this profession. There is no formula, no right or wrong way.
Elaine told me flat out, "When I got married, I married my husband's department too and expanded my dysfunctional family by 46 people!" She was only half joking about the dysfunctional part. She would never make her husband choose between her and his job, so she settled in and got involved. Her advice to new spouses? "If you're not already independent, you need to learn how to be." Elaine is very clear that when she chose to marry a fire fighter, she also chose the lifestyle that came with him—a choice she has had to remake over and over as the years passed. She has a great sense of humor. "Forget about competing with the department," she says, "lights and sirens win out over sexy lingerie every time!"
Accepting the firehouse family as part of the package is one approach, especially if the person you marry is already a fire fighter. But what happens if you marry a teacher and two years later he decides to join the fire service? Amy was pretty miserable when Lee made his decision. She hated being alone so much of the time, even though she needed the time to study. She worried about Lee's safety. She trusted him, but she didn't much like it that there were female fire fighters sleeping in his dorm. Amy's attitude changed when there was a small fire at their house. Fire fighters came from all over, from as far away as 30 miles. She remembers that "fire fighters were literally running people off the road to get to us just because we're part of the family." As she tells me this story, she has tears in her eyes.
It's a great anecdote, but I wondered why it took a crisis for Amy to feel welcomed and supported by Lee's department. Shouldn't she have been included as a valued part of the fire service from the beginning? Where were the people who could have talked to her about everyday concerns like coping with loneliness? Who could have eased her fears about Lee's safety? Unfortunately, spousal support programs are few and far between. Those that exist are found mostly in large urban fire departments.
Amy's experience as a fire victim reveals the depths of the commitment fire fighters have to one another and the benefits of being part of the fire service. Here are three more examples out of dozens I collected.
When Angel's whole family was hospitalized with a mystery virus, his coworkers called everyday. "It's amazing," he says. "It doesn't make any difference if people like me or not, they'll come to help."
Cindy used to make fun of her husband, Dave, and imitate him talking on his radio in front of their family. When her mother had a heart attack, fire fighter/paramedics arrived in a flash, saved her life, and were very supportive in the process. Cindy's sister was staying with their mother. She was so grateful that she called Cindy and told her she'd hit her if she ever mocked Dave again.
Laci and Evan have four children. Evan is in the National Guard and he was deployed overseas for six months. While he was gone Laci made a decision not to share any bad news from home with him. She wanted Evan to stay focused on what he was doing and not worry about the family, especially since there was little he could do from so far away. She didn't tell him when their health insurance lapsed and their youngest son needed surgery. But the fire department knew and took up a collection to pay for the surgery. When Laci declares that "I'm not just married to a fire fighter, I'm married to the whole fire fighter family," she says so not with resentment, but with pride, gratitude, and the certain knowledge that she can depend on Evan's department in times of need.
MANAGING SHIFT WORK AND SEPARATIONS
Separations are part and parcel of the emergency response lifestyle. There's a high likelihood that your fire fighter will be working at night, on holidays, on your birthday, on your child's birthday, when the pipes burst, and when the dog has puppies. Fire fighters can be called in or called back just as guests are arriving for dinner or just when you were counting on leaving the kids at home and getting away for the day.
That's what happened to Mindy. She was on her shift when the dog bit her son in the face. Her partner, Morgan, called from the hospital hysterical and crying. Mindy told her captain to find backup and literally flew out the door. Home was two hours away. By the time she got to the hospital she was almost in hysterics herself. She "did an O.J." through the parking lot toward the emergency room (ER) doors, which opened outward, knocking her flat on her butt. By the time she found Morgan, their son was in surgery. Morgan was furious with her for days. It didn't make any difference that Mindy drove like lightning and ran like the wind: she wasn't there when she was needed. Morgan's anger was irrational; Mindy might not have been home if she sold insurance. It was just his wife's cumulative total of spending time away from home that got to Morgan who was feeling, for the moment, consumed with responsibility and worry.
There are a variety of work schedules in the career fire service ranging from 9- to 24-hour shifts. Each schedule has its plusses and minuses in terms of sleeping, eating, commuting, and time off. One thing is sure: shift work can make life difficult, especiallywhen you're trying to keep little children quiet so that Mom or Dad can sleep during the day. Your family, your non-fire service friends, and your children's schoolteachers may all be affected by your fire fighter's schedule and be upset when he or she isn't predictably available or can't be counted on to show up and stay as planned. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I Love A Fire Fighter by Ellen Kirschman. Copyright © 2004 Ellen Kirschman. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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