Breathing Room for the Firefighter Family, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

Deputy Chief Jonathan Jones of the Clarendon County (SC) Fire Department asked my husband Mike and I to develop classes for the 109th South Carolina State Fire-Rescue Conference held in June of this year. He wanted them to be about “breathing room” for firefighters both on and off the fireground. Mike tackled the fireground, and I addressed family life. The purpose of my class was to give firefighter families tips on how to keep from living too close to the edge with the ever-present danger of going over. To “go over” is to face collapse, breakdown, or complete and utter implosion of your marriage and family. The goal is to back away from the edge so as to give your family “breathing room” or an emergency reserve of strength for the predictable surprises of life that always come. Like an overstuffed closet that can’t hold one more item, we must “clean out the closet” to make space, or else it will all come crashing down on our heads someday as life keeps heaping more and more on us. With breathing room, your family can survive the extra stresses and strains that threaten to destroy. Without it, the unprepared overly stressed-out family may not.  

Families are disintegrating at an unprecedented rate in this country. The average divorce rate is now around 50 percent. For the firefighter, the statistics are even more staggering; on a show dedicated to firefighter marriage, Dr. Phil stated that firefighter marriages have a 75- to 90-percent chance of failure. I have spoken across the country on this topic for several years now, and everywhere I go I too hear the same message: This profession is extremely tough on marriages. At a recent chaplains’ conference, I was told that marital and family problems are the number one reason firefighters ask for chaplains’ help (this is true of police as well). Sadly, too many firefighter families are going over the edge.

Firefighting:  So how do we as firefighter families give ourselves breathing room? It begins by understanding the uniqueness of firefighting as a profession. This is not a desk job. Firefighters are routinely exposed to the two most impactful experiences known to the human psyche: danger and trauma. These experiences have consequences, often extreme ones. When the human body is faced with danger, it undergoes immediate, dramatic physical changes for the purposes of survival, and this is accomplished primarily through huge surges of adrenaline. It is exhilarating, and it gives you superhuman strength. This is the fun part and the primary reason firefighters love what they do. But the consequence of adrenaline is backlash (or utter fatigue); the greater the danger, the greater the backlash, plain and simple. The more your body has to fight to survive, the harder it has to work to recover when it’s all over, and this recovery is what should be happening at home.

When exposed to trauma, which simply means witnessing something horrific, the human psyche is impacted or, in other words, your mind goes through emotional changes. Trauma is heartbreaking but, ironically, the most typical response isn’t sorrow or sadness but anger. Anger is a functioning emotion; it helps the firefighter to keep going. Sorrow is debilitating and can render one incapacitated. Though sad, a firefighter may appear to be angry, and this can cause damage at home. Know the job, know the consequences, and the firefighter family can begin to back away from the edge—breathing room.

3 Ways for the Firefighter to Back Away from the Edge:

#1: Do not overcommit. This is number one because it is the primary reason firefighters are going over the edge—too much commitment off-duty. Firefighters, you are given time off for a reason—not for a second job, and not for eight million extra activities including sports, committees, massive projects, and the Type A’s drive to ever achieve. This time is for you to recover from the impact of firefighting physically and mentally. If you continually overfill your time off, you are dangerously close to having no reserves for any extra stress in your life.

Backlash is the physical result of adrenaline; your body has to shut down for a while to restore the sources of glucose that were used during exertion and to repair any damage that was done, such as muscle strain. If ignored, over time backlash can so drain the body as to leave it extremely vulnerable to serious injury and or illness, such as cancer. Every time that bell rings, your body is filled with adrenaline as it prepares for battle. Whether the call leads to a fire or not, the adrenaline is still there, using up your resources. Adrenaline needs to be burned off either through firefighting or through some type of exercise later; otherwise, it remains in your system to wreak havoc.

Circadian rhythm disruption is the cost of doing business for the firefighter. “Circa” is Latin for “around” and “dian” is Latin for “day”; circadian rhythm is the term used to describe the body’s 24-hour sleep pattern. The rhythm helps your body know when to be wakeful (the morning) and when to be sleepy (the night). For the firefighter, this rhythm is disrupted every shift. Science has proven that it takes two minimum (four optimum) nights of unbroken sleep to reset this internal clock after just one night of disruption. Without restoration, sleep deprived persons can literally go insane, as is often seen on the battlefields of war. Soldiers are deprived of normal sleep for about a year’s worth of service; firefighters must be deprived for an entire career! That is why they must have nights off—to keep from going insane. Sleep is also the best way to recover from emotional trauma. Firefighter, give yourself breathing room by using your time off appropriately, which is to allow for rest and exercise. To do this, your budget may have to be adapted to live on less income, or you may have to say no to a project or two.

There are two more ways for the firefighter to back away from the edge and ways for the firefighter family to do so as well. Look for these in my next column.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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