You Don’t Have To Have It All Together. And You Don’t Have To Do It Alone
For an industry that crafts it’s masterful art with exclusively team approaches, I see a lot of isolated, loners and rebels going at life independently. I don’t mean renegade firefighting techniques you try to solo. I mean life stuff. For firefighters, that’s everything that happens outside of official training and taking calls when on and off duty such as learning to be a leader, a good communicator, growing supportive relationships and living a healthy lifestyle — physically and mentally. There is a big problem with this approach. When we try it alone, we burn out. You simply can’t do life alone.
From the outside looking in, courageous firefighters serve their community while supporting each other in a tight knit “second family”. Our honorable memorials to the fallen, mass action fundraising for firefighters and their families in need, and the “heroic but we don’t like to call them heroic” service performed in the communities. It’s a very good and beautiful thing. Still no one is addressing the burn out.
Here’s the cycle I’ve observed in firefighters that is frightening.
Proud and Grateful
You enter the profession eager, excited and feeling like you just won the lottery. You just dedicated many years to disciplined study, low paying or free fire fighting work and hours upon hours of training all for the love of the job. Now, you get to be paid for doing what you love alongside a big family of others doing the same.
Weary But A Warrior
After a few years, the shiny newness wears off a bit but you are still a warrior. Still proud of what you do and grateful for having work that you love. Perhaps you are on the path to promotion and that keeps you locked in and motivated. Your family has adjusted to the fire life routine. You’re in your groove. Yes there are long nights but also many rewards. You soldier on because you were made to be a firefighter.
This next season is the one that frightens me. Not everyone slips into this mode but when they do, it’s a dangerous valley. There is great awareness being brought to behavioral health topics and firefighter suicide rates and the corresponding relation to marriage and family struggles. While we must serve those struggling in that space, I am driven to root cause analysis and prevention. If we can prevent firefighters from slipping into this next season, I believe we can change the statistics on those struggles.
Burnt Out And Simply Surviving
At some point the newness is completely gone and worst of all, the warrior spirit is busted. You feel broken, beat down and discouraged. Whether it’s too many sleepless nights, too much grief in the compartmentalized bucket of sadness, beating your head against the same brick wall for too long, or being under a leader who has checked out and selfishly neglected their crew and is counting down the days to retirement, you are just surviving. You are there to collect a paycheck and try to hold back the cynical comments about the “brotherhood.” A few sparks of the joy from being of service to others keeps you filled up along the way thank goodness. You are surviving but overall you are disappointed and trapped in a profession that doesn’t typically encourage lateral transfers and recruiting. In any other profession, if you ran into these burn out barriers, your resume would be plastered everywhere seeking a career and an employer who appreciated your talents and cared for your well being. Instead you have earned a noble job that you’re “supposed” to love. No one warned you of this phase.
If you are a spouse of a firefighter you may understand exactly what I am sharing here because you are likely the only person your spouse has to lean on and confide in. As the spouse you encourage and comfort and also agree that no one should be expected to carry the burden shift after shift that some of these firefighters are carrying. Most likely, you have to work hard to resist the cycle of bitterness yourself because it hurts to see your spouse in a profession that once filled them with so much joy, now feel trapped in the worthy they are doing, all the while everyone oohing and ahhing over “You’re married to a firefighter! What a great job!” You have probably truthfully prayed you don’t care what profession your husband is in as long as he’s happy, perhaps even breaking clean and starting over fresh in something new. Drastic feelings call for drastic actions sometimes.
You may have read this far and be wondering why a firefighter’s wife is writing this. Surely it’s not my business to be in the business of the fire service. You’re absolutely right. I speak these words now as a leader of a large organization in the fire service who has observed and participated in this pattern personally. Somehow many of the firefighters I work with through our non-profit, seem to get to a point where they say to me, “I don’t say this to anyone else but my wife but I think you would really understand. There are days I really don’t like this job. It beats me down. The only thing keeping me together is my personal dedication, my commitment to my family, and a couple of firefighters I am close with who can talk me off the ledge.”
This isn’t just one or two conversations. I’ve had this conversation over and over and over again. Sometimes it’s in the form of, “Can you help my wife understand why I’m feeling this way?” or “I’m afraid to tell my wife I don’t like my job because our family relies on me to provide for them.” Sometimes it’s this: “I’m sure everyone in my department feels this way but there doesn’t seem to be a safe place to share these thoughts.”
As a wife, my compassion explodes. How can these men who were MADE to be firefighters, who entered the profession with eager enthusiasm working for free, find themselves so stuck in their careers, disappointed and beaten down? Then as a wife, what can we do to continue to encourage them despite the barriers they face?
As a leader, I can’t imagine not knowing what my team is feeling and experiencing personally. I wonder if their officers and chiefs are out of touch with them or are facing the same challenges and barely giving minimal effort at work or if the macho attitude of some firefighters prevents them from being vulnerable and admitting, “Hey, we are working in a negative, soul stealing culture and I’m not sure I like it anymore.”
Not everyone hits all of these cycles for sure. Some people are blessed with mentors to lift them up when they are weary to keep them focused and inspired. If you are lucky, you have a leader like that on your crew. When we look at the demographics of all work places — not just fire fighting — it’s no secret that baby boomers are reaching the retirement age and within a few years, will have completely exited the workforce leaving it in the hands of a rather thin — in size not talent — generation of those of us born in the 70s followed immediately by the boom of millennials.
We are five to 10 years away from your entire work force looking very different, not just the fire service but, every profession. Every industry has a chance to train up their future leaders in a way that will bring healthy change and growth to their work and their people. What are we going to do about these fire families?
This is where my passion ignites because I am one of those in between generations born in the 70s, currently in my 40s and feeling the weight of this challenge upon us. It is not OK for us to have firefighters beaten down by the job, families suffering the effects of the weariness, the politics, the whatever, and not be addressing that. Whether this beat down happens first because of the fire service, or the challenges of life beat them down and they withdraw from what was once their passion is debatable. Either way, the solution is to practice prevention that keeps them from entering this season of tired bitterness.
The outside view of the fire service is not wrong. It’s genuine and true. Firefighters are helpful to the public and serve a much needed, sometimes heroic, role in their communities. Can you feel the energy demanded to maintain that outside view while on the inside feeling burdened? The hope lies in the fact that the good is worth fighting for.
Truth is, if you don’t believe that good wins eventually, your heart and soul will be stolen, taken hostage, ruined by bitterness and wasted by living in cynicism.
I’m not a fan of sarcasm because I see it as real hurts leaking out disguised as humor. Anyone know a sarcastic firefighter? (All hands raised?) Call it a coping mechanism or what you will, the job takes its toll. If you don’t believe the best, that good men will prevail, you are at risk for falling into that hurt, bitter, cynical, sarcastic place.
When you reflect on the good things that have happened, you can see that in the end the good guys are winning. They don’t get every save. They still have enemies. Not every “best man” gets the promotion. Not every firefighter stays married. But those who are able to guard their hearts and make steadfast in their mind the positive, the hopefulness and goodness, do prevail. See the good.
- The young firefighter who took the 24 hours of forced overtime on December 24th so none of the guys with families had to.
- The officer who takes a moment to know and ask about his or her crew’s families.
- The fire families whose letters showed up in my mailbox with personal text messages and phone calls at the right moments.
- The personal letters and gifts sent when one of our own Fire Wife Sisterhood members lost her firefighter to a long battle with cancer this year.
- The way the Fit Fire Wife community is there to uplift and encourage everyone who is struggling with that fitness demon.
- The team of tireless volunteers who support non-profits like 24-7 COMMITMENT.
- The fire service speakers, organizations and bloggers who all have their own critics but fervently retweet and share posts about the GOOD expecting nothing in return.
When you can’t find it in your own crew or department, you must look up and look out to get filled up.
There are good firefighters who walk out of 35-year careers still proud to say they serve the public. They love their job, despite the political challenges around them. They’ve changed the lives of likely hundreds, if not thousands, of people with whom they’ve interacted in their career.
When times get tough at the station, and the environment gets tense with another union versus leadership challenge or talks of the inevitable “crew change,” I like to remind my husband that he’s there first and foremost to serve that community. And who are we to know that it won’t be until year 34, day 364 of his career that he makes a save on a toddler, child, teen, mother, uncle, leader, homeless man, drug addict, etc. that’s going to drastically alter the course of life as we all know it? That person may go on to lead, invent, or give millions and wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that save.
No one wants to admit they need help, especially a firefighter.
Even if a firefighter can hold it together positively for a 24 hour shift, they are mentally exhausted by the time they get home to their families.
When a spouse can recognize this as burn out and come with compassion and not frustration, it’s ideal. Ideal isn’t real life and often a spouse faces a big burden in this season feeling hopeless about what they can do to help their best friend. Frustration fuels change. Goodness can come from change.
So why not do this all alone? Because the fire service is here to serve, and we do a darn good job of serving the public and serving each other in crisis mode — line of duty death, injured firefighters, sick children, etc. But most of life does not happen in crisis mode. It happens in every moment in between.
Is this the price we pay for being the type of people who work well in crisis? I refuse to let that be the case. It’s time to care for each other in between the crises.
Good truths are actions that happen in person, through individual acts of goodness.
The truth is in our words and actions.
I challenge you who are reading this to take this taboo topic and seek the good, laying a strong foundation for the efforts of good men and women to continue to prevail.