At a moment’s notice, fire personnel respond to numerous emergencies. These emergencies may include natural disasters (floods, wildfires, earthquakes), building fires, and major haz-mat incidents. In addition, after the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the threat of additional mass-casualty terrorist attacks is always present. Many of the responding fire personnel’s family members may be within the radius of such an incident. On-duty fire personnel may not be able to contact their families during an emergency or disaster and will be concerned about the welfare of their family members. A fire department dependent care program can be developed to address the safety and welfare of personnel’s family members. This would enable on-duty fire personnel to stay focused on the incident in which they are involved instead of being distracted by concern for their families.

Many fire departments across the United States work a 24-hour shift. During that 24-hour period, fire personnel’s stress levels increase for reasons such as missing family meals, holidays, and school functions and from constant exposure to traumatic events. A study conducted by Raymond Novarre, Ph.D, human resource officer, Toledo (OH) Fire Department, found that 50 percent of the fire personnel in his study described as a major stressor phone calls concerning problems at home that they could not address until they got home the next morning. “No one likes the feeling of helplessness, especially a first responder,” Novarre points out.1


In the late 1970s, the Santa Barbara (CA) Fire Department (SBFD) experienced a major structural/wildland fire. This fire involved an area in which the homes of several on-duty fire personnel and an on-duty dispatcher were located. Except for the dispatcher, fire personnel were hearing only rumors concerning what was happening in the area where their homes and families were. In addition, the anxiety levels of the on-duty firefighters were extremely high because they were not able to communicate with family members.

After the incident, the SBFD began to develop a dependent care program tailored to the department’s needs. Initially, the department proposed that a department representative would phone each on-duty member’s residence. If there were no contact, the representative would physically check on the member’s residence to make sure everything was all right. With the radius of fire personnel’s residences expanding to 60 miles away from work, this concept was not feasible.

As the dependent care program began to evolve, the SBFD wanted the program to include more than notifying on-duty personnel of their family’s welfare in a crisis. The plan also had to teach these families to be self-sufficient during the firefighter’s absence. The goals of the program ultimately expanded into the following:

• To relieve the anxiety of on-duty firefighters by developing a program for their families that encompasses pre-event training and procedures for post-event verification of the family’s safety.

• To provide study materials and classroom instruction in disaster preparedness for department family members.

• To ensure that on-duty firefighters realize their responsibilities to the citizens of Santa Barbara.2


Fire departments can create a dependent care program to meet the specific needs of their departments. Kurt Larson of the Wheat Ridge (CO) Fire Department, whose 1994 applied research project for the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy addressed a dependent care program for his department, conducted a survey that identified firefighters’ major concerns as family welfare, food and shelter for dependents, childcare, and communications with family members. His research also concluded that follow-up and monitoring of the dependent care program should be conducted to tailor the program to the needs of the department.3

The dependent care program can be established by taking the following steps.

Pre-Event Preparation

Examine the disasters that have happened in the area in which fire department personnel work and reside. Are there any major highways, railroads, or airports that could be involved in hazardous-materials transport? Do department members reside in close proximity to areas prone to flooding, including rivers, dams, and levees? If the community provides a warning signal, what does it sound like? Be aware that animals (pets) may not be allowed in emergency shelters. Local county agricultural agencies can provide valuable information on steps to take when larger animals have to be left behind.

The SBFD, during the first quarter of each year, sponsors workshops for family members that review basic first aid; emergency household supplies; and home safety checklists, including procedures to use when shutting off utilities. Just as fire departments conduct preplans of their district’s target hazards, so should firefighters’ families preplan their homes to reduce the chances of injury, minimize damage, and become aware of what to expect in an emergency. (2, 52) These workshops might cover topics such as the proper use of a fire extinguisher and the proper place to STORE a fire extinguisher.

The workshops also provide essential information on basic supplies that should be stored in the home, such as the following:

Water. It should be stored in plastic containers and in quantities that provide one gallon per person per day for at least three days.

Food. Store a three-day supply of nonperishable food that includes ready-to-eat canned meats; canned juices; and foods for infants, elderly persons, and other individuals with special diets.

First-aid supplies. A basic first-aid kit for the home and car can be obtained at any chain drugstore. Other items that should be stored include extra clothing, batteries, a portable radio, and special medication (blood pressure, heart, and diabetes) family members may need.

Important documents. Documents such as insurance policies, deeds, stocks, birth certificates, credit card numbers, and the like should be kept in a waterproof portable container that can be removed quickly in a disaster. In addition, elderly family members (or those living alone) should have a medical health data sheet. If there is a medical emergency and the patient is unconscious, this sheet can provide responding EMS personnel with important medical information needed to properly treat the patient. This information should include allergies to medications, blood type, past medical history, current medications, the family doctor’s name and contact information, the patient’s preferred hospital, emergency contact numbers, social security number, medical insurer, and identification numbers. Because of the anxiety family members experience when a relative is in medical distress, members often cannot provide much of this information to the responding emergency personnel.

Helping-Hands Program

Develop a helping-hands program among fire personnel and their families. SBFD firefighters who live close to each other have joined in a mutual-aid agreement. They check on each other’s homes and families in an emergency. As an example, if there were a major earthquake, an off-duty firefighter on the way to report for duty would pass by the homes of on-duty members who live nearby to confirm that the families are safe and to check on the condition of the structures. As soon as the off-duty firefighters come in to work, they would report what they have seen. That information would then be forwarded to the on-duty firefighter. (2, 54)

When fire personnel must report to duty immediately in a crisis, finding childcare on short notice may be difficult. Department members living close to each other can prearrange to provide mutual-aid childcare for each other. In addition, a centrally located childcare center, possibly a township building or a privately owned childcare center, could be used in a crisis. Off-duty department members or auxiliary members may also volunteer their time to supervise the children of on-duty members if a crisis continues throughout the evening hours.

Fire department members living farther away from work or families who do not care to be alone during a crisis or are in need of assistance can make helping-hand arrangements in a predetermined mileage radius zone. Agreements can be made for assistance in such areas as pumping flooded basements; caring for family pets; and performing minor roofing, electrical, or plumbing work. The knowledge that an off-duty firefighter will check on other firefighters’ homes and provide emergency repairs helps ease the concerns of on-duty personnel in a major incident.

Mutual aid does not have to be limited to providing emergency assistance to fire personnel’s homes during a crisis. Before becoming the academic director of the fire science program at the University of Maryland University College, Joanne Hildebrand used to conduct mutual-help programs for fire department members’ spouses and family members in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This program was developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs Foundation and was known as ASSIST (Answers for Spouses by Spouses through Interaction, Support, and Training.) According to Hildebrand, the concept created “a mutual help program that harnesses the collective strength and motivation of spouses and organizes a forum for the exchange of ideas and actions.” Hildebrand explained: “Through the program, spouses help themselves and their families to cope more effectively with job stress. The answers to questions and concerns confronting spouses are explored and supplied by the spouses themselves, men and women who have acquired a wealth of firsthand knowledge and skill in coping with and meeting the challenges of job stress that spill over into the home and family.”4 Some of the programs include stress management, family communication, understanding hospice care, and pre-retirement planning.

Peer support can also be provided in the following manner:

Department auxiliary: Family members can help organize an annual summer picnic and a yearly holiday party. These functions serve to develop new acquaintances and renew old friendships with retired members.

Department newsletter: It helps keep members aware of what is happening within the department and can feature past memorable incidents or fire personnel’s special accomplishments. It can forge a bond between new and older members.

Annual awards banquet: This event would provide recognition for members who have served for 20 years, have earned heroism, EMS, life safety, and other awards.

Telephone Verification

Fire personnel fill out a dependent care information sheet that includes the home phone number, work number, phone number of the school(s) children attend, home address, special medical information, and number of a third-party contact. This third-party number preferably should be a designated party outside the county or state- a member of an out-of-state fire department, for example. A department member would head the phone verification process.

In Santa Barbara, for example, after a natural disaster, participating family members would call the third-party phone number and report their status and location. If the designated department employee is unable to contact the firefighter’s family at their residence, he would phone the third-party number to ascertain the family’s status and then forward that information to the on-duty member. Generally, it is difficult to make phone calls to an area affected by a disaster; calling out of the disaster area is often easier. The third party doesn’t try to call into the disaster zone but instead receives phone calls from the families of Santa Barbara firefighters and then relays this information to the SBFD representative who calls the third party. (2, 54)

Implementing such programs not only reduces the stress firefighters experience when they must be on duty and away from their families in times of a disaster, but it also helps to ensure that the firefighters will be able to better focus on their duties and thus perform them in a safer manner.


1. Lemanski, Cheryl and Stephanie Samuels, “Psychological First Aid: After the Debriefing,” Fire Engineering, June 2003, 73.

2. Albertson, Chris, “Is My Family Safe? Fire Chief. Sept. 1996, 54.

3. Larson, Kurt, P. “Establishing Dependent Care Programs To Assist Emergency Operations,” Executive Fire Officer Program, NFA, Applied research project, 1994.

4. Hildebrand, Joanne, “ASSIST Workshops: Mutual Aid for Spouses, Firehouse, Sept. 1985, 161.

GEORGE KUHN is a firefighter/EMT with the Linden (NJ) Fire Depart-ment, where he has served for 13 years. He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Union County Community College and will graduate this December from the University of Maryland (UMUC) with a bachelor’s degree in fire administration.

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