The Volunteer and the Spouse A Study in Cooperation


Scenario: After a long day at the office, you arrive home to a tired spouse and children bouncing off the walls. Ten minutes later, you receive a call to respond to a fire in your community. Reluctantly, your spouse agrees that you should take the call. The scene to which you arrive is blazing. You don your gear and spend the next three hours fighting a fire, saving a fellow volunteer from the building in the process. On returning home, your adrenaline is wearing off, and you long for a quiet space to relax. However, your house is still full of rambunctious children and an exhausted spouse. What comes next? How do the volunteer and spouse handle their evening? How do they support one another?

For many volunteer firefighters, this story is their reality; 71 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and communities from across the country rely on these departments to be the sole providers of emergency medical, fire, and rescue services. It is clear from this scenario and research from the field that the volunteer firefighter lifestyle is full of challenges, ranging from the job’s physical and psychological demands to limited family and leisure time at home.

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One specific challenge is the burden firefighters can feel when choosing an emergency call over family time. Many families take great pride in supporting their firefighter. However, these same families can experience emotional turmoil when firefighters are gone for long periods of time or when they miss special events. So, what factors influence the choice to respond to a call? A spouse and spousal support of the firefighter play integral roles in this decision.

A recent study on which this article is based highlighted the successful strategies and support techniques spouses provide to their volunteer firefighters. The research questions addressed by the study follow:

1 How do firefighters who meet or exceed the minimum service requirements experience the support of their spouses?

2 What is the importance of the support of the spouse to firefighters?

The study leveraged a “Small Town” Volunteer Fire Department (STVFD) with 40 volunteers, ranging from 18 to 62 years of age, trained at various levels to assist the community. Skill levels ranged from intermediate firefighter to advanced firefighter and from emergency medical technician (EMT) to paramedic. The staff was comprised of one chief, two assistant chiefs, two captains, four lieutenants, and 31 line staff.

The population consisted of all firefighters in the STVFD who were married, had children, and were meeting the call response standard. Fourteen firefighters met these criteria.

The sample participants were determined using purposeful selection. Purposeful selection states that all participants are uniquely able to be informative because they are experts in the area of study or are privileged witnesses to the situation. The sample included approximately 21 percent of the population, or three firefighters, plus their spouses. The following critera were met by the sample for inclusion in the study:

  • Participants must meet the call response standard of 15 percent.
  • Participants must be married and have at least one child.
  • Both volunteer and spouse agreed to participate.

The sample included a mix of ages, years of marriage, number of children, family lifestyles, and years of service on the department. The volunteer firefighters in the study were white men with ages ranging from 29 to 36. The men had been volunteering with the fire department from eight to 18 years, providing ample perspective into the role and responsibilities of volunteer firefighters. One volunteer was a career firefighter, and one volunteer was a career police officer.

The spouses in the study were white women, with ages ranging from 25 to 36. The families had either one or three children, with ages ranging from two weeks to nine years. Two of the three wives were employed full-time. One recently ended her employment to stay home with her child. The couples’ years of marriage ranged from one to 10 years.

Researcher One conducted six one-on-one interviews with the firefighter and his spouse; five were conducted in person, and one was conducted on the telephone (the participant had recently undergone surgery). Setting up the interviews required multiple e-mails, phone calls, and text messages. The participants’ limited amount of free time available for extra activities was evident; this demonstrated the importance of thoughtfully planning free time as well as preparing for a call at any given moment. The interviews supported this need for planning and flexibility.

Following the interviews, the data were analyzed by identifying themes and trends. Analysis occurred throughout the interview process to manage the amount of data. Ongoing analysis also tested validity as themes emerged and reemerged. During and after the interviews, feedback about the data and conclusions from the participants was solicited. The feedback acted as a safeguard against misinterpreting the meaning of what participants were communicating. Additionally, the feedback was important for identifying biases and misunderstandings of what was observed by Researcher One.

Prior to publication, Researcher Two input the raw data into a Web application that facilitates qualitative and mixed methods research. Researcher Two identified themes, ensuring that all themes were covered and nothing was identified according to previous biases. Themes identified by both researchers were similar, with the majority of findings containing children-related themes.

Following six one-on-one interviews, the participants selected implement strategies that worked and allowed firefighters to respond to service calls. Four themes and trends from this study were then explored to provide examples and support for volunteers and their families.

Partnership adaption. Partnership adaptation was crucial regarding childcare. Successful planning, scheduling, and communication were keys to covering childcare duties and maintaining an overall balance. At times, however, it is necessary to go with the flow. There were many accounts of juggling the unpredictable nature of the role and the time away for calls and training. Each situation was evaluated to determine if responding was appropriate or doable. Results showed that the type of call mattered. Typically, the more severe the service call, the more adaptable the family became.

Challenges. Many firefighters and their spouses have worked through the mounting stress in their own ways. Sometimes, a spouse simply cannot support responding to a call. One spouse shared, “Sometimes I just don’t want him to go.” The volunteers were aware of the delicate balance of their relationships and their volunteering. All of the spouses expressed their overt and covert signals of disapproval at times. A volunteer must be cognizant of his spouse’s feelings and prioritize accordingly, despite the many rewards of helping someone in need.

Selfless dedication of volunteer and spouse. The volunteers and spouses shared accounts of sacrifices they made. Such sacrifices were possible when the spouse agreed to support the volunteer, often by taking on additional responsibilities. All of the volunteers acknowledged the devotion of their spouses in supporting their volunteer efforts. One spouse described her experience by saying, “He went on a fire call in the middle of making supper. I told him he could go and I would make the food, clean up, and take care of the baby. I was fine with it because it was a fire, and people needed help.” The spouses were as committed to helping others as were their volunteer firefighter husbands. However, the spouses expressed their dedication in less obvious and more indirect ways.

Intrinsic rewards. A consistent theme expressed by the volunteers was the desire to help others; each volunteer described the outcome of his volunteering as being able to help those in need. Several times, the firefighters and spouses indicated that they supported the goal of the profession. The spouses were proud of their firefighters for sacrificing their time and skills to help others. One spouse shared her pride by saying, “I’m proud of him and what he does and his passion. He is happy when he does it. He gets something out of it and helps someone in the community. We are very much into giving back.”

The overall content of the interviews suggested that if a person is committed to helping people, is available to respond to calls, and has adequate support, he will continue to volunteer. The study’s themes revealed how the volunteer and spouse responded to the lifestyle and ultimately deployed strategies to successfully serve the community. Even though selfless dedication and intrinsic rewards focused on the impact of the work done-not directly on spousal support-research within this study showed that without the support of the spouse, the volunteer would not be able to feel pride in his work and dedicate as much time and energy to helping others.

The current study suggests volunteers’ efforts may be derailed if they do not have the right balance of commitment, availability, and support. The work/life balance is complex, but it can be reached when spouses are supporting their volunteer firefighters. The support techniques demonstrated by the spouses in this study include the following:

  • Planning for training and childcare, when possible.
  • Being easygoing and open to disrupting dinner or taking on extra responsibilities.
  • Taking into account details about each situation to make a joint decision.
  • Partnering to make the most of flexible time, vying for both family and leisure time.
  • Having open and honest communication, constantly discussing how to adapt to the lifestyle.

The volunteer role is equally rewarding and challenging, but each family must develop its own system of communication about the sacrifice and commitment required for the volunteer to serve. Being a volunteer firefighter is a joint decision, reached carefully by a firefighter and his spouse. After all, the role impacts a person’s emotional and psychological well-being as well as the volunteers’ families, specifically their spouses, who provide support in numerous ways, which were acknowledged and confirmed by the volunteers in this study.

An accurate portrayal of a volunteer’s impact on his family’s lifestyle is powerful; it allows practical expectations to form. This includes exploring shared values, determining if the family is prepared for and capable of the sacrifices, and making the commitment to respond to calls. Local fire departments could provide information about the benefits of a spouse’s support. Information could be shared either formally, such as in a handbook, or informally, such as at a department social or event. Connecting seasoned spouses with new spouses would be an ideal way to convey the successful strategies and importance of providing support.

Results and themes from this study could also be applied to community education. The department could display a poster or literature outlining the impact on families and the important role the spouse plays in supporting the volunteer. The fire department has various opportunities to convey the message such as during fundraisers. The community can add support by simply saying “thank you” or with monetary donations. Further, community members may provide support during a situation in which a spouse is balancing the added responsibilities while a volunteer’s spouse attends a call.


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NICKI ATKINSON is an instructional designer for new hire curriculum. She was a volunteer firefighter’s wife for several years, which led her to explore the dynamic of the firefighter/spouse relationship. Atkinson completed her graduate degree in adult learning and organizational performance at Drake University with an emphasis on training and development. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology and business from Upper Iowa University.

CRIS WILDERMUTH is an assistant professor at Drake University, teaching leadership, research, and instructional design. She is also an international organization development consultant and has traveled extensively conducting leadership and diversity programs. Wildermuth is the manager of Linked: HR, a human resources group on LinkedIn with 600,000 members worldwide. She has authored Diversity Training, published by the National American Society for Training and Development, and has been published in the Journal of Commercial and Industrial Training and T&D Magazine. She speaks frequently at regional, national, and international conferences.

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