Adaptability: A Necessary Quality for the Firefighter Spouse

By Anne Gagliano

To say that firefighting is chaotic is an understatement. Firefighters face unbelievable challenges every shift—they literally never know what awaits them on the other end of that alarm. Anything and everything can and does occur at an emergency scene; chaos for the firefighter is routine. They train to prepare as best they can, but all firefighters know they never really have absolute control in their workplace. And this chaos spills into their home life as well.  As a married couple, you become “one flesh”; the firefighter’s world becomes your world.  What character quality must a spouse possess to survive the crazy, hectic, ever-changing life of a firefighter? Adaptability: You must be able to change directions on a dime, adjust, and be flexible if you want a long and happy marriage with a firefighter.

The ideal firefighter spouse is not only able to adjust to any circumstance but can do so with style. A prime example of this was conveyed by the actions of Missy Dugan. Her husband, Captain Mike Dugan of FDNY, walked into their home one morning after his shift with a six-pack of beer in hand. Missy asked with disapproval, “A little early for beer, isn’t it?”

 “I’ve been up all night, so it’s happy hour for me,” he replied. “Plus, we lost 11 guys last night in different fires, so I’m going to drink this and go to bed.”

Graciously, Missy then said, “Would you like some eggs with that beer?”

Her disapproval of alcohol in the morning instantly changed to support when the circumstances were revealed to her: adaptability at its finest.

Adaptability means letting go; it means not always having to have control. A good firefighter mate intuits this and does so. I believe that my role as a firefighter’s wife for the past 26 years has been to try to maintain some vestige of order in the midst of chaos, to keep our family on somewhat of a normal schedule but without rigidity or inflexibility. This is much easier said than done, especially for the closet control freak.

I may come across as being “easygoing,” mild-mannered, even serene, but I am, in fact, a recovering control addict. As a child, I was so neat and orderly that I dusted and vacuumed my own room on a regular basis. For fun, I’d rearrange drawers and closets–my own, as well as others’. I loved organization, and I wasn’t averse to foisting it on others. I also used to be habitually prompt and took great pains to have an ordered schedule; I’d get agitated if anything threw me off, including others’ tardiness (I hated to be kept waiting, still do). But then I married a firefighter, and everything changed. I now had to do one of two things: drive him and me crazy with my need for order and control, or adapt.  I chose to adapt.

For example, let’s take a look at the firefighter’s schedule. It varies, to say the least. Different departments have different hours, but Seattle works 24 hours on, 48 hours off, 24 hours on, then 4 days off. You’d think this would be simple, but it’s not. He’s on one schedule, the kids and I on another. School hours were mostly 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., five days a week, weekends off. Did Daddy ever have a whole weekend off? Very rarely. Throw in overtime, debit days, getting called in on emergencies, trades, committee meetings, teaching, and training, and we’re talking chaos. 

How did I adapt to these two drastically conflicting schedules? I learned to actually appreciate Mike’s free days at home with just me while the kids were at school. What a treat! We didn’t have to wait for our nest to empty out before we got to enjoy lots of time to ourselves as a couple. We also truly valued the fact that Dad was the only “room mom.” He was often available during school days to go on field trips and participate in class parties for both of our boys.

But the biggest adaptation for me in my controlling ways and desire for a perfect schedule was to actually let my boys miss school–a lot. In fact, my kids were voted “most likely to miss school” through their elementary and middle school years. This may sound like a shameful lack of parenting, but we found that the only time we could really all be together for family outings often fell during the school week, as weekends were rarely ever free for Mike. My kids were straight A students despite their less-than-perfect attendance records because they, too, learned to adapt by becoming responsible and organized enough to never fall behind. Not only did their grades not suffer, but we believe they thrived emotionally as well because of our precious family time together, which was more important than any rigid schedule. (By high school and college, when attendance became essential, they rarely missed a day.) Adaptability in this way married two opposite schedules into one that worked for all and kept our family close. But I had to be willing to let go of perfection (my kids’ attendance) for this to happen.

The clash of control vs. chaos has produced many battles over the years for Mike and me. I will share more of these conflicts and their results in my next column.



Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.


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