Photo by John Odegard.
By Anne Gagliano
“Lying here in the darkness I hear the sirens wail. Somebody going to emergency. Somebody’s going to jail. You find somebody to love in this world you better hang on tooth and nail. The wolf is always at the door.”–Don Henley
Sitting here at my lake house, I, too, hear the sirens wail. With experience, I can discern the difference between police and fire; I suppose most people can’t. The lookie-loos and well-wishers focus on the incident, the victims, the tragedy. I, on the other hand, am more concerned with the responders. What will they encounter? What must they endure? Will they get there in time? Will they handle what awaits? At day’s end, will they safely return home, and will a family be there when they do? As a long-time fire spouse, these are the thoughts that run through my head when I hear the sirens wail.
For the firefighters, the wolf is always at the door, and they must face it in all its forms: fire, danger, devastation, and death. As the simile goes, the firefighter intercedes for the sheep he protects as a sheepdog–a tame carnivore strong enough to fight wolves yet capable of living peaceably in the world. This is the firefighters’ job, their calling. Then they go home. And the wolf waits there too, trying to destroy the sheepdogs in their most sacred place, the place of rest and recovery with the ones they love. If the firefighter is not ever-vigilant, the wolf will destroy. Firefighters are willing to lay it all on the line for the citizens they serve, even to the point of death; but the one thing I’ll wager they never intend to sacrifice is their family. Yet this is easier said than done because the dual roles of fire and family are often at odds with each other as both demand full devotion and attention. If the firefighter is not aware of this fight, then the war may be lost.
So how does the firefighter survive the unique challenges of the profession? By acknowledging they exist. Danger has an impact, or physical repercussions. The fight-or-flight response kicks in and the body is transformed into superhuman, wolf-fighting capabilities. All sources of strength and energy are used to complete the task. Afterward, the body must rest and restore. The firefighter returns home and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) backlash sets in with profound exhaustion. Or the fight may not be over at shift’s end, and the firefighter returns home still amped up. Either way, home life is impacted. And the spouse must be fully aware of all that is going on if couples are to last.
So how is this done? How does a firefighter maintain both profession and home life? It is done by achieving the elusive balance of keeping the first family first. Firefighters have two families; co-workers are never viewed as “co-workers” when dealing with life and death for a living. In such extreme circumstances, they become as family, a brotherhood/sisterhood. If the first family starts to feel less than the second family, the scales will tip, and the first may be lost. So how do you keep the scales from tipping? You need both and love both, but one must take precedence, as one is ultimately more important. For my firefighter and I, the solution came down to one simple word: TIME. Time is a language of love. How you use your time will determine your first love. And this is how our marriage has survived 33 years of fire service, by his managing time in these three ways:
Firefighter, be in the moment. The draw of the firehouse is a strong one. The desire to fight the wolf is part of a sheepdog’s DNA; it’s hard to turn that switch on and off. But you must. When you are with your spouse, ignore the distant sirens’ song and focus only on her. Turn off the phone, the pager, the computer. Time with each other–to talk, to listen, to make love—is absolutely essential. It is sacred and special, and you must view it as such.
It will greatly help you to be in the moment if you will do two things: get caught up on sleep and exercise. Sleep deprivation blurs the mind, inhibiting the ability to think clearly. And, of course, this impacts intimacy. And being amped up full of adrenaline may cause the opposite: irritability, agitation, impatience, anxiety. This may cause unnecessary harshness, barking of orders—all destined to drive your civilian (or sheep) spouse away from you. Be in the moment as they wish you to be—the loving, gently patient version of you.
Firefighter, do fun things with your spouse. Part of the jealousy that arises between first and second family is that the second seems to get to do all the fun stuff with you. Riding fire trucks with sirens blaring, fighting fires, floods, and the like, then going back to the firehouse and talking and laughing about it, is pretty cool stuff. Home life can pale by comparison. So make sure you have powerful memories at home too–amazing, memorable, satisfying, and fun.
Here is an example: My husband Mike and I like to kayak on our little lake. We’ve expanded this with a new purchase, a motorized pontoon boat (it’s easier for our aging shoulders to navigate). We tour our lake then “park” in our favorite spot near a vast, wooded section. We spend hours there, talking, reading, swimming on warm days, and drinking hot coffee on cold ones. It is our magic space. Just the two of us. And it is one tool to keep our time just as special, if not more so, than the firehouse.
Firefighter, you must sacrifice. Sacrifice is a word you’re familiar with if you’re a first responder or if you live with one. Firefighters sacrifice for a living. Their time, their health, their energy, even their very lives are on the line for the citizens they serve. So why must they sacrifice yet again? Because you can’t have it all.
There is the simple reality of time: Every minute of every day must be assigned to something. If it all goes to the firehouse, then something will lose. If it all goes to overtime or that second job or that desired hobby, then something will lose. You must choose.
This is easier said than done, balancing the needs of the firehouse with the needs of a family. But if you find someone to love in this world, they are worth your time. The battle rages on to steal it away from you, your precious time; the wolf is always at the door. Fight back. Be in the moment, do fun things with your spouse, and sacrifice that which is good for that which is better; this how you hang on, tooth and nail.
If you’re interested in my book, check it out here: http://www.pennwellbooks.com/shop-fire-books-videos/new-products/challenges-of-the-firefighter-marriage.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.