The Toughest Family Questions
GOAL: Improve Emergency Responders’ health, safety and performance on the job.
We often talk about our separate lives. We call it Career and Family, but in emergency services, like the military, there is a very special dynamic between the two. By the nature of what we do, people in our Career are considered family, and likewise, our Family is directly impacted by many aspects of our career.
Something that brought this to mind recently was a blog post by Rich Gasaway at Situational Awareness Matters!. He talks about a Fire Chief who visits the families of new hires to speak with them about the commitments that a firefighter makes when taking the job and the support that he or she will need from their family members. It was at one house that the Chief encountered a question that many family members think about, but few ask directly, “What safeguards do you have in place to ensure my husband will come home after every call?”
Wow. There it was. The elephant was now in the room. The question that most family members try not to think about, much less ask out loud. You can imagine the discomfort, right? Isn’t that why we try not to talk about it or in some cases, think about it?
Addressing questions like this is absolutely critical for us to ensure the health of our Career / Family dynamic as well as the health of our profession as a whole. After all, you can’t have one without the other.
Our department recently worked with a local university’s Occupational Therapy Master’s Degree program, participating in a multi-part evaluation of our entire staff. In the beginning the firefighters were focused on the physical dangers of the job as we normally are. We were thinking about things that our families don’t typically see like how we respond to the call and how we work at a fire, car accident, medical call or other emergency. But the OT students were looking at EVERYTHING that we did, from what we ate, to what we did on our downtime between calls, what our attitudes were about our jobs and how we carried stress from home into the firehouse and from the firehouse back home.
Well, because stress and attitudes towards safety are the leading contributing factors for all of the top killers of emergency responders. While firefighters were looking at things like making sure to sound the roof so that we didn’t fall through it (important to be sure) our evaluators were looking at things that were a lot more likely to kill or injure us, all of which were directly linked to how our emergency services family and home families work together. A poor relationship there is likely to lead to greatly increased stress and not only poor work performance, but also the kind of mistakes that get responders hurt or killed.
The OT students emphasized that the care and feeding of this special Career / Family dynamic was something that was vital to the mental, emotional and even physical health of our emergency responders. They talked about how important it was not only to staying safe and healthy, but that less stress and better relationships lead to happier and generally more successful firefighters (and other emergency responders).
Ok, so how?
APPLICATION: There are a ton of resources out there but, as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
- Your “Next Step” is to do what that wife did. Question. Discuss. Talk about it out in the open. What are we doing to keep our people safe and improve our working conditions? Start by talking about it with the people that you work with on the road as well as the supervisors, administrators and Chiefs. Rich Gasaway, Billy Goldfeder (from The Secret List) and other experts agree that while some safety and work improvements can be logistically and budgetarally difficult to implement, there is often a great deal of “low hanging fruit”. These are the things that you can easily change right now that will greatly improve safety and working conditions. Wearing your seat belt is an easy example of this. First Responders, supervisors and Chiefs should identify, expect, and “DO” these simple but cost-effective actions that will help ensure that “everyone goes home.”
- Strengthen the relationship that your home family has with your work family. This doesn’t just mean that spouses should attend holiday work parties. Dr. Ellen Kirschman is known for her two books “I LOVE a COP” and “I LOVE a FIREFIGHTER”. Both of these books are intended to help families understand both the work that Responders do, how it impacts life at home and how to improve that unique Emergency Responder Career / Family dynamic.
- Rinse and Repeat. As much as our Type A personalities demand that a problem be fixed so that we can move on, the Career / Family dynamic and the issues that surround it are an integral part of every day of our lives whether we’re on-duty or on-vacation. You know that there will always be new questions to ask and new things to do to address them, but, like the experts say, when you’ve built an excellent Career / Family dynamic, you’ll have the support network to meet any challenge that you encounter.
Remember, your work life will always need the support of your family and your family will always need you to be safe at work. There is no one-and-done solution. The good news is that once you begin to strengthen and balance that Career / Family dynamic, both of your families help support each other and your work and home life becomes better, happier and safer.