A powerful paradox

CarolinaFireJournal - Gail Ostrishko
Gail Ostrishko
07/15/2014 -

Service in public safety is a powerful paradox. On the one hand, these public servants seem selfless; risking their lives daily to save people they don’t even know. But from the family’s perspective, it can feel selfish to put their livelihood at risk for the sake of serving strangers. It is an exciting, revered career, like no other, but comes fraught with fear, anxiety, unpredictability and the threat of death on a daily basis, not only for public servants, but also for every member of their families.

It takes a special person to commit themselves to these careers, and someone just as special to pursue permanency in relationships with them. Firefighter and first responder families are a unique breed, often absorbing the ripples of relationships and situations they are not even privy to.

It seems like a dream job, from inside and out; and is certainly not an option for everyone. Days are always different, unpredictable and range from boring to laborious to life threatening, and often life changing.

Several staples include self-confidence, independence, strength, courage and the capacity to embrace challenges head on without relying on someone else to drive the train. Empathy, enthusiasm and understanding are also essentials in the equation, along with flexibility and support.

The Brotherhood is a family, which for many over shadows other family connections and commitments. Because of the closeness, coming to work may not always seem like work, and outsiders may see daily activities as more social in nature; until the calls come. It is an infinite support network surrounding family members from both sides; like having two different families that operate independently, but naturally merge when necessary to make sure everyone and everything is taken care of. Intrusive and accommodating, expected and appreciated, the door swings both ways when it comes to caring for its members.

Commitment to public safety and service is not just a career; it is a calling. It is a lifestyle choice that ripples out to every relationship in our lives and is more often rooted in who you ARE than what you DO. There is a serious sense of pride that takes precedence over some of the inherent dangers, inconveniences and lack of daily routine. Schedules can be sporadic, unpredictable and constantly changing based on needs and demands. This can work in both directions, making parents available during the day for specific school activities or appointments, but also leading to many missed ballgames, concerts, holidays, birthdays, special family events and more.

Consistent kindness and caring gestures go a long way toward cultivating close connections. My niece’s husband has a habit of bringing her favorite coffee upon his return from a 24 hour shift. This is sacred time they share, reconnecting and catching up before another day begins and sends them in different directions.

Simple words texted throughout the day, written in short notes or spoken in quick calls at bedtime go a long way toward keeping communication open and commitment strong.

I recall seeing the movie Fireproof years ago, and relating completely to the universal theme of the cobbler who has no shoes; the main character is a hero in his community but a zero in his own home. (If you have not seen this movie, please do!) We teach that which we most need to know and need to be sensitive to the importance of practicing what we preach.

Families need a strong backbone of strength, independence, understanding and acknowledgement.

Partners of firefighters and first responders work independently as situations arise, and must be prepared to handle situations and make significant decisions without the presence and input of their spouse. Reentry requires re-acclamation, and respect for what has transpired in their absence.

There is often an emotional disconnect, as individuals struggle with how much of their experience to share and how to work through and with the situations they have managed separately. Coming to terms with crisis on a daily basis, simultaneously desensitizes and magnifies emotions, which clouds logic, further complicating communication.

Loneliness is a common denominator as families spend extended periods of time apart. In contrast, colleagues become a large extended family who are not only behind, but beside each other in both personal and professional pursuits.

I know my niece is a strong independent woman, which has served her well as the wife of a firefighter.

There have been many long nights and challenging days, managing the household, school assignments (hers and her son’s), illness, along with discipline and the day-to-day responsibilities required to run the household. And the reciprocity revealed when she required emergency surgery was nothing short of amazing. I get a sense that these, like most successful long term relationships are rooted in reciprocity; equity, not necessarily equality. Not expecting everyone to make the same contributions in every situation, but realizing that everyone brings something different to the table. Equity is a sense of balance between what you contribute and what you receive within the context of relationships and is an essential ingredient of long-term success.

Service in public safety is a powerful paradox of independence anchored by interdependence, loyalty coupled with loneliness, exhilaration shadowed by anxiety and uncertainty anchored in empathy; an honor and a burden shared by all family members connected through biology, psychology and/or Brotherhood. Thank you ALL for your unconditional investment in yourselves, your families and your communities.

Gail Ostrishko, MS, LPC is a creative catalyst committed to bringing out the best in individuals and organizations. Grounded in over two decades of experience as a Counselor, Facilitator, Speaker, Author and Coach, Gail brings learning to life by making hard things simple and connecting Relationships to Results. Her new book: “Engaging Excellence: Bringing out the best in everyone” is available at www.gailo.com or call 919-219-2666 for more information.
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