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Between Alarms: A healthy combination of work and home life

How much do you like your life as a firefighter? Are you devoted to the idea of serving your fellow residents? Do you train as often as you can? Does the “pump” of going to that structure fire feed the hunger? Do you forgo other commitments because your pager goes off?

October 31, 2008
By Vern Elliott

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How much do you like your life as a firefighter? Are you devoted to the idea of serving your fellow residents? Do you train as often as you can? Does the “pump” of going to that structure fire feed the hunger? Do you forgo other commitments because your pager goes off?

I asked about your “life” as a firefighter. As a young firefighter, I never gave much regard to my occupation; my work was a means to do other things. I remember people asking me two questions after finding out I was a firefighter: “What is the grossest thing you have seen?”; “How do you do it?” My response to the first question depended on my mood; answering the second question was easy . . . it’s my job. I never considered my occupation or myself as being “special”. I thought our job was no different than any other – there was a problem and we fixed it. 

As I met firefighters who devoted their time to fundraising, to the union, to training and other interests, I realized there is more to being a firefighter and to being a citizen. The expects firefighters to be model citizens. Our occupation rates near the top of respected-profession studies. We are what is good about humankind. Selfless, brave, caring and strong are a few words that come to mind when I think about those with whom I have had the privilege to work.

Our job is one of the best and we have every right to devote ourselves to helping out in a variety ways. We can give time and effort to improve the lives of others but, as we do on the fireground, we have to look out for No. 1 first. 

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Every basic fire course stresses safety. By protecting yourself and your team, you are protecting those in need. We are no good during an incident if we are injured. The same can be said of our personal lives – we cannot function if things are not healthy. This means we have to evaluate our family lives to ensure they are fit. I assumed that as long as everyone was content there were no problems – as long as we had a roof over our heads, food on the table and some finer things, everything was OK. However, without the family fun, friendly get-togethers, relaxing holidays and communication, our families face challenges. I thought my family would accept the fact that I was a firefighter and that was that.  

Needless to say, my relationships suffered and my assumptions were thrown into my face. I lost connections I cherished and my personal life was not healthy. Fortunately, we were able to work through the communication issues, the consideration for others, and we dedicated our efforts to maintaining a healthy family.

This is a sensitive subject, not just for the fire department. Disruptive personal lives affect a great deal of society but I think because firefighters are so often held up as model citizens, it is time to recognize the proactive steps that can be taken to protect our personal contentment.

Our department’s recent recruits attended a session with their significant others  facilitated by our human resources department and our newly appointed chaplain. The discussion was to ensure that significant others understood what it means to be involved with a firefighter. A firefighter I know has taken a proactive step and recommended required counselling sessions with significant others for all members. Some might argue that such sessions are not

necessary but I think the sessions will be of great value, because if even one firefighter or spouse were to come away from a session having learned one positive thing, the session will have been beneficial.

There are many families I know in which the mom or dad dedicates a great deal of time to the fire service and manages to hold strong family ties. I hold this type of relationship in the highest regard and constantly strive to achieve it. A proper work/home life balance is difficult, but by evaluating, understanding and altering my at-home relationship I believe my family and I have achieved a high degree of communication and respect.

As firefighters, our occupation imitates life and in this case directly affects our other life. The most important lives are those of our families and friends. We must protect these relationships with the same vigour we have on the fire ground.

Editor’s note: With Vern’s promotion to deputy fire chief, operations, with Strathcona County in Alberta, he’s hanging up his writing hat for a while. Congratulations and best of luck!


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