What’s it like being a firefighter, and why is it harder for firefighters, men and women, to be average Joes and Janes at home?
I know this question is one that someone in a relationship with a firefighter can’t always answer. One reason is that firefighters are rarely the most communicative people at home, even though they communicate well at work. That’s the weird thing about it. They must be able to communicate every little thing to each other, because their lives depend on knowing where everyone is and what everyone is doing at all times. Their career isn’t like any other; neither their training nor their culture encourages them to share their feelings. It’s a gift and a curse, really. It’s a survival skill. They have to deal with the horrible things they see on a daily basis. Their behavior is the result of having to separate from their emotions to get the job done and handle an emergency. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work at home with the people they love.
More importantly, at least until they’ve been in a relationship with a firefighter for a long time, most “normal” people—pretty much all of us who aren’t firefighters—don’t realize they’re involved with someone from another world. That world is the Fire World. When you become part of a firefighter couple or a firefighter family, you’re in that world, a stranger in a strange land.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but think of it this way: if you were to go live in China, what would you be willing to do to fit in and feel a part of your new home? You would learn the language, religious beliefs, and cultural practices. You might go and visit popular tourist sites or make new friends.
This is the same attitude you need to adopt when you decide to be in a relationship with a firefighter.
Why did your partner decide to become a firefighter? Mine kind of fell into it. His family moved from the Bay Area to a small town in Northern California that relied heavily on volunteer firefighters. There was a large fire near his house, and he ended up helping out by doing many of the less glamorous things. But he was hooked—charged up and excited. Filthy and tired, he asked the chief if there was a way he could get more involved. He joined them as a “junior” firefighter, allowed to do only what was basically the dirty work and cleanup. His dad actually had to drive him to the scenes until he got his driver’s license—and eventually got involved as well. By eighteen, Jeff was taking classes to start what would be his career.
The Three Facets of a Firefighter’s Work World
The first step in surviving as a fire service significant other is to gain an objective perspective of what it’s like to be a firefighter. Let’s start by taking a look at the three facets of a firefighter’s work world, because every workday will fall into one of these categories:
1. Routine day at the fire station
2. Busy call day
3. Fire season
Routine days at the fire station might be calm, as far as runs go, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t busy in their own way. Firefighters always have plenty to do; their work lives are largely planned out. And even though they’re no longer tasked with all the chores that were handed to them when they were rookies (they have another set of rookies for those now), it’s not about sitting around rehashing past calls or playing cards or video games.
All firefighters have specific stationhouse maintenance jobs, much like roommates do. They also have training and drills to follow and carry out, along with regular station inspections and the preparations for them.
Firefighting is a physically demanding job. Therefore, time is set aside every day for working out. If you think about how much time they are at work, it makes sense that they would need to work out at the station. This helps not only their physical well-being, but their mental health as well. I have heard many regular people make comments like, “Must be nice to get paid to work out.” I doubt those people would be willing to put up with everything else that comes with it.
At the station, the crew interacts much as a family does—because this is a family, the “fire family.” They joke and talk, are together constantly, and form strong bonds. They’re still “littermates,” just as they were at the academy, because they don’t go home for days on end. The basic schedules (not including overtime days, which will add to these already long days) are:
· the 48/96— forty-eight hours on and ninety-six hours off
· the Kelly One, also known as the 4/4 or 4/6—a four-day set on and four or six days off
· the Kelly Two, or the 3/4—a three-day set on and four days off
Every schedule means the firefighter spends almost as much time at the station, day and night, as at home. This impacts the firefighter family as much as, if not even more than, the firefighter.
Seriously. When you’re involved with a firefighter, you’ll never be sympathetic to the complaints of nine-to-fivers or their partners again. I mean, they get to lead normal lives!
Even though a great deal of time is spent at the station on routine days, they still get called out; how much depends on how busy the station is. Especially at the busier stations—and there is always one that’s the busiest—the crew has little downtime and rarely gets to sleep soundly through the night. Some people prefer the busy stations, love the pace, and don’t like if they get detailed out to a quieter station temporarily to fill a gap. We also have what we call “retirement stations,” popular with older firefighters, who prefer the slower pace.
If you’re a significant other, you probably already know that stations have a captain who is in charge of the station. There are firefighter-paramedics, who are responsible for running medical aids as well as fighting fires. An engineer has special training and qualifications to drive the engines and trucks. There are also tiller operators that sit in the very back of a tiller truck and drive just the back end. Finally, there are firefighters who fight fire, assist in medical aids, and provide any support the crew needs.
My husband Jeff, as a firefighter-paramedic, was on the rescue ambulance, and also fought fires. When an ambulance is sent out, there will be two people in it, a patient man and a driver. When I was an EMT, my partner and I would rotate driving or tending to the patient; it’s usually just a matter of preference. A standard fire truck carries three to four firefighters, depending on the department. The exception is a tiller truck, that long, jointed one that requires a specially qualified person to steer the back end.
The engineer is also the person charged with pumping water. Above the captain, who is the head of one station, is the battalion chief, in charge of several stations. In a multi-station call, the captains are in charge until the battalion chief gets onboard.
Got all that?
It’s important to know the organizational structure because it impacts the way firefighters think. They’re in an environment with a paramilitary structure, with specific duties and strict rules for handling situations. This shapes their personalities, and they bring those personalities home—to you, the person waiting for someone to breeze through the door and cheerily call out, as Desi always did, “Lucy, I’m home!”
Moving along to a busy call day, that denotes a day when the calls keep coming in and the ambulances/rescues or fire trucks keep going out. Even on days with no calls or just an occasional non-critical one, a firefighter spends the day on edge, tensed for a call. That’s hypervigilance, which we’ll come back to later, and it goes with the job. Even in bed, the firefighter is waiting in an anticipatory one-eye-open kind of sleep. Don’t get fooled if your firefighter says they slept all night. Remember, it’s not restful sleep, it’s on-edge, waiting-for-a-call sleep.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I would call Jeff first thing in the morning and ask, “Did you sleep last night?” The answer to this one question, along with the tone of his voice, would tell me what kind of day we were going to have. Early in our marriage, if he said he’d slept, I would think, “Cool! We’re going to have a good day.” However, that’s not always the case, and it caused arguments. I would say, “But you slept—why are you so tired?”
On busy days, there are many calls, and some of them are always serious calls. Anything termed a serious call is taken very seriously, because at least 10 percent of them could turn out to be critical, matters of life and death. On the other hand, many of the calls are BS calls (and firefighters put this even more strongly—no surprise there). In a nutshell: you simply would not believe the ridiculous things people call 911 for.
Someone might call at two in the morning to say they feel ill and need help immediately. Then it turns out they have the flu, have had the flu for three whole days, and are well on the way to getting better. This ends with an adrenaline-charged firefighter thinking furiously, Are you kidding? I could be sleeping! In a way, these nuisance calls are harder to deal with than the serious calls, because with a serious call, you go into full-out work mode. You know what has to be done and you do it. With a BS call, you feel a surge with no action mode to follow, just frustration and irritation.
All this means that the busier the shift, the more it affects the firefighter, who has been in fight-or-flight mode—work brain mode—for the past twenty-four hours or more upon arriving at home, sweet home. A firefighter in work brain mode is fast and funny, with laser-sharp attention. Work brain is flooded with adrenaline, with an increased heart rate, a sharper sense of being alive. But when the body is working at such overdrive, such biological overdrive, there is only one way for it to go. And that way is down, into exhaustion and crashing. So, now we have home brain hitting that downward slope; it can be hypervigilant and hypercritical, noticing every little thing out of place, every detail that doesn’t feel right. At our house, I always felt like we were waiting for an inspection the minute Jeff walked in the door.
Home brain can be a colossal pain in the butt.
I always joke with my husband that I was tricked because I met him on the job, which meant I fell in love with Work Jeff but married Home Jeff. As a newlywed, it didn’t take long before I started thinking, “Hey! I want Work Jeff to come home. Work Jeff is amazing. Work Jeff is funny. Work Jeff has got lots of energy. Work Jeff doesn’t have anger issues. Work Jeff doesn’t bite people’s heads off.”
How about you? If you don’t grasp the work brain versus home brain concept, you end up, as I did then, taking it personally and feeling both defiant and depressed.
And then there’s fire season.
At some point, when we were first dating, I asked Jeff innocently, “What’s fire season?”
Fire season is that period in the summer when fires are more likely to break out on a regular basis. Big fires. Dangerous fires. Fires that burn for days and weeks, even months. Fires that are more likely to result in both civilian and line of duty deaths. New issues firefighters have had to deal with are natural disasters, like the Montecito mudslides, hurricanes, and the Oroville Dam break.
Fire season, for readers who aren’t significant others, doesn’t always mean you’re off fighting some exciting, apocalyptic fire. It can mean that you are sent on a strike team, overhead assignment, part of an Incident Management Team (IMT), or backfilling in the stations to make up for the firefighters who have been sent out.
Some people really enjoy going out and spend a significant amount of time getting special qualifications for it. Others prefer to stay close to home and do overtime by covering the necessary shifts. When firefighters are out at large incidents, the IMT is charged with setting up a site for all the responding agencies to meet, eat, and sleep. This is called the Incident Command Post (ICP), or fire camp. Fire camp is set up for a very special occasion and not everyone goes, even though, as I’ll explain, it still affects everyone on the job deeply.
So, let’s take a look at fire season and why it takes firefighters both up (those doing what they signed on to do, in the most intense way) and down (those not going out but being left at the station, or sent to hold the fort at another station). Firefighting is all about qualifications, and some firefighters have qualified to be on a strike team or on overhead assignments to go out to fires. Overhead assignments, or single resource, is when a firefighter has a specific qualification to perform a job within fire camp—logistic, line medic, communication, etc. Overhead assignments don’t need an entire strike team. A single person can be sent to fill these needs.
Deployment to a large incident can last anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one days, so even if your significant other isn’t off on a deployment, their work is grueling, because it requires pulling extra shifts (forget that Fourth of July party right now!) and dealing with even more BS calls.
Some stations are relatively quiet during fire season. This could be because the station isn’t in a large department, so they don’t send many firefighters to large incidents, due to the need for maintaining coverage in their own city. But in most stations, even if they’re quiet, in terms of not being in a high fire zone, fire season is still extra stressful, because when some crew members get called out for a fire assignment, the ones left to backfill can get what we call “forced” or “mandatoried.”
If you are even relatively close to someone who works within the fire service, I’m sure that you have heard all too many times about them being “forced.” Because firefighting is an emergency service, the stations can’t be unstaffed, since they still need to respond to local emergencies. This is referred to as “constant staffing.” So, if a firefighter had plans for a day off, and a strike team from their department gets sent out, that firefighter will more than likely get forced back to work, regardless of any plans they may have made. And believe me when I say your firefighter hates having to make that phone call home to tell you that. My husband usually starts the call with, “You know how much I love you, right?”
Fire season doesn’t care if you made plans or have a vacation you have been planning all year. One of the biggest complaints I hear from the firefighters is about the number of forces/mandatories they deal with. Some departments even have a “no days off” or set staffing patterns policy for fire season.
I’ve met some significant others who viewed their firefighters’ time at fire camp as being off “camping.” Not on your life. It’s working in unhealthy breathing conditions, for hours on end, then hoping to get back to the camp setup in time to make the tail end of the dinner line and eat something before catching a little sleep. There is an entire business sector dedicated to serving the needs of fire camps—repurposing huge semis to serve as bunkhouses, catering to long chow lines, setting up communications, and generally turning fire camps into villages, much like armed forces encampments. In hard-to-reach areas, the firefighters are in actual tents for the duration. Whether in trailer or tent, some firefighters are so done in by the end of their exhausting, long workdays that they fall asleep fully dressed, not even bothering to shower the ashes and grime off their faces.
And the public watches them on TV, and sees them not just as heroes but as glamorous and sexy. That public doesn’t live with one!
Living with a firefighter during fire season is far from glam. Familywise, it’s hard on everyone, especially significant others with small children. You end up trying to do everything, all the time, without help. I always say I’m a “single married person.” My life is like that of a single woman, much of the time, yet I’m not single and carefree.
So, with disappointed partners and sad kids missing their firefighter or feeling hurt that Mom or Dad can’t show up for their game, their play, or their graduation, firefighters are never without guilt. Either they feel they’re letting the crew down, or they’re sure they’re letting their family down. Home family or work family—someone always gets let down.
Much of a firefighter’s identity is locked into their work family role, to the point where some can’t disengage at all. Like a bigamist, a firefighter tends to unconsciously feel they’re cheating on one family or another.
I work with cops, too, and it’s not quite the same for them in this regard. Those who choose law enforcement don’t always work together—they’ll work alone or in pairs, or with a revolving group of other cops, so they’re not as closely tied in with groups of co-workers. Still, when they get home, their behavior is much the same as firefighters’, the result of adrenaline fatigue and the frustration of dealing with people who are ungrateful, judgmental, disrespectful, and who make bad choices, in the hope that the cop will fix it or maybe look the other way. Law enforcement definitely has to deal with public scrutiny much more than the fire service does. However, the one thing both struggle with is the transition from work brain to home brain.
Why Your Firefighter Acts Like a Jerk and Drives You Crazy
Firefighters come home and they’re impatient without even realizing it. Everything at work is time-sensitive, so they never want the intro and the details. It’s all “cut to the chase” with them, and they’re puzzled when their significant other feels slighted. They usually haven’t a clue that home brain requires different behavioral patterns than work brain.
It’s easy to get sucked into thinking or believing it’s about you or your relationship. It is very important that you remind yourself daily that this is about work brain bleeding into your home life.
Yes, it can feel like your firefighter is self-centered and dismissive of your concerns; that’s because this is how it works on the job: get to the big stuff, take care of the urgencies, ignore the small stuff, and get on with it. Firefighters are puzzled when I remind them that while they are out fighting fires, running calls (whether they’re BS or serious), or stuck in fire camp for days, their significant others are at home, gutting it out, so they can have their cake and eat it too—so they can have their dream job and a beautiful house, spouse, and kids. As a spouse, I have told my husband several times, “I know what I signed up for and I am willing to sacrifice, but a ‘Thank you, I appreciate what you do’ goes a long way.”
A good example of that happened when I was deployed to the Montecito mudslides. I talked to about 350 fire personnel, educating them about mental health and the signs and symptoms they had to be aware of. At the end, I told them about saying thank you and how important it was.
After we were done, I had so many firefighters walk up to me and say, “I guess I have forgotten to say that enough.” The next day, more than five guys walked up to me and said, “After your talk yesterday, I called my wife and told her thank you, and that I loved her, and she started crying.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day stuff of life, and we all forget sometimes that simple things like saying thank you can make a huge difference. For firefighters, that also means not forgetting about all the sacrifices their significant others make due to the lifestyle. Occasionally, when I tell them they should just say “Thank you” once in a while, the response is a shocked, “Oh, I never thought about that!” or, “I forget about that sometimes.”
Seriously, they have no idea they’re not the same at home as at work. They don’t have a clue that they’re acting like jerks or being emotionally detached. Instead, when they walk through the door with that hypervigilant work brain still turned on, they immediately notice what’s out of place.
I am going to give up a spouse secret right now. Depending on how old your kids are, there is a ritual we all do, starting anywhere between six and ten p.m. We round up the children and say, “Your dad/mom will be home tomorrow, so you need to get this house cleaned up. Everyone go!” The best-case scenario for me was when my husband would call and say he had to work overtime the next day. I would tell the kids, “Hey, false alarm, everyone! Abort mission! Dad works tomorrow.” We all realized that Dad coming home meant it was time for the kids and me to run around, cleaning. Then I’d walk around and inspect, thinking, Okay, all right, we’re good. He isn’t going to find anything wrong this time.
Do you think I have ever been right on this one? Sure enough, when he got home, he’d find something that was out of whack or where it wasn’t supposed to be.
The funniest experience I recall was when he returned from a fourteen-day assignment in Northern California. As usual, we were all excited for him to come home, but knew he would be in total work mode with his work brain out of control. When we passed inspection on his arrival, I was feeling pretty good. One of the things my husband likes to do to unwind is yardwork. He was out working in the backyard, and I was upstairs working out, when my son came up and warned me, “Dad’s in a mood.”
You know what “mood” I’m talking about, right? It’s that tone in their voice and look in their eyes.
Soon after, here comes Jeff. I was ready for whatever he was going to ask me, thinking I had heard it all from him before—until he walked up, looked me in the eyes, and, in all seriousness, asked, “Babe, where’s my chain saw? It’s not where I left it.”
“Really? When have you even seen me use a chain saw?” I asked.
Of course, he wasn’t hearing anything I said. He was way too focused on what he perceived as an item being out of place: “I left it in the spot in the corner where it always is, and it’s not there.” I mean, just dead serious.
“Are you joking right now?” I asked. His chain saw. “You’re nuts. You’re literally nuts. In all these years, when have you seen me with your chain saw?”
He went off, in a huff, and twenty minutes later, I heard Revvvvvvvv. Yeah, his chain saw.
The funniest thing? When I tell a firefighter to curb doing or saying stuff like that, the response is often, “Oh, you must have talked to my wife!” No, dude, I don’t need to. I’ve lived it.
Here’s the big thing you have to accept: they’re brainwashed.
I don’t mean this as an insult. It’s simply the truth. In the fire world, there is a process for everything. The rest of us, we’re just humans. We don’t have a process for everything, so to them, we often seem to be the strange ones, with our messy emotions and (in their minds) odd expectations. Like every family should invariably expect to lack the presence of one family member at Christmas or Easter or Hanukkah dinner—right?
Hypervigilance is closely tied to burnout. “Burnout” might sound like a play on words when applied to those in the fire service, but it’s far from a laughing matter. The classic description is that it’s the state that occurs when perceived demands outweigh perceived resources. In 1996, at a seminar on trauma, the condition was described by traumatic stress and compassion fatigue expert Eric Gentry this way:
Perceived Threat = Fight/Flight = Sympathetic
Response + Chronic Anxious Presence + BURNOUT
Yikes, right? I’ll break it down.
It’s Not Jerkiness, It’s Science
A perceived threat is something we can learn to detect through experience. A learned threat refers to something we can learn to be sensitive to from movies, books, or the news.
Let’s look at an example. Whenever I watch a movie and a woman is walking to her car in a covered parking lot or underground parking structure, I know something bad will happen. I have never experienced this personally, nor do I know anyone this has happened to. However, every time I walk in a parking garage, I get scared. I am extremely alert to my surroundings, and my heart rate goes up.
If nothing bad has ever happened to me in this situation, where did I learn to be afraid of it? Obviously, from movies, books, or the news. My brain has created a slide that gets filed and pulled every time I come near a parking structure. And that slide says, “Perceived Threat.”
An experienced threat is based on actual events you have witnessed personally. Let’s stop and think about the calls your firefighter has told you about or even heard about from another firefighter. A baby drowning, a teenager crashing a car, a Christmas tree burning a house down? All these threats can lead to too many stress hormones and too little ability to take in the world as it really is—seeing things through the lens of learned or experienced threats and failing to see the reality.
Learned or experienced threats are all seen similarly by the brain. If you believe it to be a threat, your brain will respond, regardless of its validity. Additionally, the brain doesn’t understand that “Oh, you’re not at work, so it’s no longer a threat.” Firefighters can’t turn off what they have seen.
How long your firefighter has been on the job will determine how many slides they have stored. They have the book on all the horrible things that can happen to people they love. This translates into controlling and overprotectiveness.
Any perceived or learned threat increases heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and energy. Conversely, it also increases fatigue. Psychologically, perceived threat causes “dis-ease,” and an inability to relax, along with obsession, compulsion, and restricted thoughts and behavior. At the same time, perceived threat decreases frontal lobe activity, fine motor control, and emotional regulation. In plain language, that means it affects language, speech, strength, speed, and agility.
Here’s an example from my own life. When we bought our first house, I wanted the biggest Christmas tree they sold. Reluctantly, my husband agreed. I proudly walked out of the tree farm feeling victorious. However, I had no clue that my husband was going to obsess over it being watered and the moisture of each pine needle, nor that he would take the ugliest rope and tie it around the tree to anchor it to the wall. Of course, I was annoyed and unhappy that he made my tree look ugly. It didn’t look like a Pinterest tree at all! What I didn’t realize was that he worried all the time about it catching fire and burning our house down—or, worse, killing us all.
Since then, it’s been fake trees for us. And what all this means is that firefighters undergo both physical and mental stresses as part of the very nature of their daily work. And yet, they love their job. Like undercover cops, fighter pilots, or brain surgeons, they have chosen a path that is always dangerous, always pressured, and at the same time, always a rush.
All of these careers have a tendency to make their practitioners view things in terms of winning or losing. This is definitely not the norm. Most people go to work and they have a good day, an okay day, or a bad day. And nobody dies.
But when you’ve chosen a high-risk, intense career, you have to live with split-second decisions, extremely focused concentration, and the fact that your work doesn’t result in some type of personal best but directly impacts the lives or deaths or others. Pretty heavy, yes?
It’s easy for people to forget that the heroic picture you see on the news or in the paper isn’t the end of the story. What happens after the photo is taken? Think how many times you can remember watching the news or social media and seeing an emotional and moving picture of a first responder rescuing someone, a picture that says so much it makes you cry. When you read or hear the story, and find out everything turned out well, and the person survived, you sigh in relief and think, Thank God, it’s okay, and move on from that story. Why wouldn’t you? No one died, so the firefighter did the job well.
Well, I’m here to tell you that isn’t always the case. Firefighters are trained to win all the time. If they are losing on the job, it means a house is burning down, a wildfire is raging out of control, or, in the worst case, someone is dying.
Anyone remember baby Jessica in 1987? She was stuck in a backyard well for sixty hours. The news captured the firefighter as he came out of the well with the baby. It was on the news every day, and he was on several talk shows, talking about his experience. But did you know that he quit working as a firefighter and then committed suicide?
I really want you to understand that just because the call turned out well doesn’t mean your firefighter won’t be affected.
I experienced this the first year Jeff was at Long Beach as a rookie. It was November 1999, and I had just put my son Kyle, who was one year old, down for his nap. Naptime was my quiet time.
Jeff called. He was really upset, and said, “I want to talk to the baby.” Confused, I said he was asleep. Jeff said, “I don’t care. I need to talk to him.” The tone of his voice was so weird, I knew right then that something was wrong. I asked him what had happened. As I was walking to wake up our son, Jeff started telling me. At first it didn’t make sense, because he was talking so fast. I got Kyle up and put the phone on speaker because Kyle was just a baby. Jeff talked to Kyle, telling him how much he loved him. I could hear his voice cracking. Then, finally, he explained what had happened.
It was a house fire. The elderly man who lived there told the firefighters that no one else was in the house. They started putting the fire out, and Jeff said he was in a room that was filled with so much smoke that he could barely see anything. He was pulling the ceiling—which means using a fancy tool and pulling the celling down to expose the structure. He told me he heard a weird noise, his gut telling him it wasn’t good. He dropped to his knees and started crawling, searching for the source.
What he found was a little boy, under a bed, surrounded by clothing. He grabbed the child and ran out of the house. As soon as he hit the grass he pulled his mask off and started CPR. The little boy wasn’t breathing. The picture you see here is my husband with the child in his arms rushing him to the rescue vehicle.
An important part of this story is why our firefighters are all affected differently, based on what personal life stage their family is at. Our son Kyle was six months younger than the little boy in my husband’s arms, the little boy he was afraid would die. Look at the picture, look at how my husband is holding the little boy, and ask yourself if he is holding that little boy or our son. Now look at Jeff’s face. What do you see in his eyes? Even without knowing him, I think you can feel his pain and his desperation to save this child.
He succeeded: the little boy started breathing on the way to the hospital, and went home eighteen days later. In fact, Jeff and his crew took him home in the fire truck.
Happy ending, right? Why would we think twice about any negative effects on my husband?
Jeff thought about that call for a long time. He would tell me about it and talk about it all the time. He often wondered, What if I didn’t hear him? What if we didn’t get him breathing? I shouldn’t have taken the word of the old man, and we should’ve searched better. This went on and on, for months and months. One reason was because in the following year, Jeff was singled out and given three different awards for saving the boy’s life. That kept the story alive in his memory, as did the fact that he wasn’t on that call alone, and there were several other firefighters there helping who were part of that boy’s survival. This created guilt in my husband’s mind, because firefighters don’t do this job for awards—they do it because they love it.
My point? The story ended happily, but it had a lasting, negative effect on my husband. If you are involved with a firefighter, don’t ever be fooled, when a serious call ends well, into believing that your firefighter isn’t still thinking about it all the time and hasn’t been deeply affected by it.
Lost in all of this is often the fact that there are significant others whose lives are also impacted, and whose very real problems, trauma, and unhappiness are not only not being dealt with, but are often not even acknowledged or recognized by their firefighters, because that’s not the way their minds work anymore. Their minds work in a fire world way, not in a normal person’s world way.
When I was young and first married, sitting at home with two kids, fighting off loneliness, feeling both proud of my husband and resentful of feeling so out of it in terms of many facets of his life, I didn’t get it at all.
If you don’t understand the scientific, medical root causes of a firefighter’s challenges, you can’t properly define what the trouble is in your relationship, much less how to manage it. If you’re like I was, and don’t know any better, you think the cause just might be you: that you’re a terrible partner, that you’re a failure at marriage, that if you’re not on a highway to hell, you’re at the very least headed down a driveway to divorce.
So, what can you do?
In the next chapters, we’ll look more closely at exactly how all these stresses affect a firefighter’s closest relationships and endanger the most important one of all: yours.
Right now, you might feel that there is no solution other than to try to keep your mouth shut and your profile low, or to resign yourself to endless fights and bickering. But there is a solution, and once we define your biggest challenges, you’ll be able to work on that solution, know how to get your partner’s help, and live happily—and never ever boringly—with your firefighter.
It can be done.
In a Firefighter’s Words:
Jeff on the Fire Family World
It’s the greatest job in the world. It can bring unmatched satisfaction and the feeling of accomplishment, under the right circumstances. But those moments can be few and far between.
Preparation is key. Knowing where all of your tools are stored and that they are ready to function is critical. You can’t spend valuable time searching for tools when you need them. They are stored and ready to go. The motto of my IMT is “In readiness is all.” We take that seriously, being ready to conquer whatever is thrown at us. The readiness and preparation are ingrained in you starting from the first day of drill school. It becomes part of you, on and off duty. That’s where it can become a bit problematic.
Yes, the chain saw story is true. But we need that kind of mentality in order to be successful. And when I say successful, I mean not only for the call, but for your career. A “normal” person doesn’t function that way. What works for a normal person can be a disaster for a firefight. If what you need is stored close to where it was last time is good enough this time…that’s not the same. If it’s almost ready to be used now, then that’s good enough…but it’s not the same. If I’ve almost got everything done, that should be good enough…not the same.
It’s tough for us to turn it off, especially in the amount of time it takes to drive home. It’s not a light switch. My wife often jokes that I can’t sit still, especially my first day off. It’s even worse coming home from a team assignment. Spending weeks in the same pattern—being on your game each and every day, being able to relay and convey directions to other firefighters—it doesn’t just go away when you pull out of the station. You are in a groove. It usually takes two or three days of “letting go” before I feel like I can really relax. By then, it may be time to go back on regular shift work—and the cycle continues.
So, walking in the door at home can be tough. We know we have been away and that you have handled a lot of things. We know that we missed a game or play or birthday party. We don’t feel good about it, at all. We have the regular guilt. We have the guilt of wanting to make it better. We have the guilt of wanting to tell you it won’t happen again. But I don’t use those words. Because then you build false hope, and that’s an even bigger disappointment.
We know that you have talked to the kids. We know that you have secrets about us, and that you whisper them in front of us. That doesn’t really help. We know we have let you down by not being there. We know that you have some resentment and anger and disappointment. The last thing we want is for it to continue. It would be great to cross the threshold and have it all be good. Nope, not gonna happen. It’s a challenge. To not be so hypervigilant that we pick things apart. To not be so high-strung and “on task.” But like I said, it’s not a light switch.
It’s complicated. I’m guilty, sad, disappointed, and even resentful that you got to do all these things while I was working. While I was working, you were off having fun and jackassing around. And from my perspective, you didn’t even ask how my day was. What I did. Did it go well?
You want me to just blend right into the “normal” day, maybe go to some snot-nosed kid’s birthday party with people I don’t know when all I want to do is sit on the couch and relax… Okay, nap! And probably have a beer. So, you can see, there’s going to be some conflict. Navigating through this is tough. Because at the same time I do want to participate, I can’t—I haven’t shut it off yet, or even shut it down into a lower gear. The “letdown” from a long shift or IMT assignment is a process. Everyone deals with it a little differently. And it’s delicate. Same thing with the “ramp up.” Take the team’s on-call week, when I’m anxiously waiting for the Santa Anas to surface, to get that good-going fire. To use the skills I’ve trained so hard for. To really apply everything. To test myself and my crew. To perform at the absolute top of my game. The anticipation. The excitement. “Why are you so excited to leave us?” Wait...what? That’s not it…I just…this fire…
And there it is, another glitch in the perfect world of a fire family. It’s not that I want to leave you. It’s not that I want to miss stuff. It’s not that at all. But I do want to go do what I do. And the unfortunate part is, you can’t have both at the same time. Welcome to the world of the fire family.