Firefighters have one of the highest divorce rates when compared to other occupations. Across the nation, chief officers and station commanders find themselves trying to manage department personnel who are coping with the aftermath of divorce. Unfortunately, training modules in the officers' academy don't cover this subject, which includes the fire service dynamics that lead to divorce, typical responses to divorce, preventative actions fire departments can take to help reduce the risk of divorce among personnel and guidance for commanding officers trying to help divorced personnel adjust to the break-up.
Firefighters are in the precarious position of having an occupation that they love but that also creates tremendous stress and strain for themselves, their spouses and their families. Many social scientists believe this is a result of the occupational stressors they encounter. The three common occupational stressors that a firefighter experiences are organizational, demographic and environmental. An organizational stressor is any change associated with the actual department, such as a tense, distrustful relationship between the senior staff and line personnel. A demographic stressor is some change in the current census of the department, such as the hiring of women or ethnic minorities. An environmental stressor is a challenge associated with work conditions, such as the erratic sleep associated with a 24-hour shift and critical incident stress. These stressors can create tremendous emotional and mental strain for a firefighter.
If stressors exceed a firefighter's coping capacity, that situation ultimately has negative consequences on his or her marriage and family relationships. The result is the development of what are know as interpersonal and individual stressors. Interpersonal stressors are any change in relationships, such as the inability to communicate with a spouse or a perceived lack of support from family and friends. Individual stressors are any personal change, such as the inability to balance work and family or financial distress. Without proper intervention, this can create a vicious cycle of stressors for many firefighters and spouses, eventually resulting in divorce.
A fire department is an organizational system with members who rely heavily on teamwork to perform their professional duties. When one member of the department is experiencing distress due to divorce, it eventually will affect other members at the company, battalion or senior staff level depending on that person's duty assignment. Therefore, commanding officers need to know what effect divorce might have on an individual. This will help them to effectively manage such situations.
One of the most important factors to realize is that divorce is just one event in the process of a marital breakup. The dissolution of a marital relationship begins long before and continues after the legal divorce. Most divorced individuals report their greatest level of stress occurred before deciding to divorce; the second most distressing period was when the decision was made to divorce, and the least stressful time was after the separation or divorce. Therefore, a firefighter typically will exhibit signs of decreasing well-being long before the actual divorce.
These signs may take the form of changes in work behavior, which can include “tapping out” due to illness, poor job performance and lack of enthusiasm for their job. In contrast, some firefighters will suddenly start “living at the station,” working tremendous amounts of overtime or, in the case of volunteer companies, signing up for additional shifts. Some may just hang out to escape their unpleasant home life.
Additionally, studies have shown that those making the transition from marriage to divorce exhibit increased alcohol consumption and symptoms of depression, which include sadness, poor concentration and attention, hopelessness, inability to sleep or excessive sleeping, and lack of appetite or overeating. Increased alcohol consumption and signs of depression can be a deadly combination for front-line personnel because of the negative effect on mental and physical well-being, which are important to meeting the demands of duty assignments. Particularly for firefighting, it's essential to success and survival that one is mentally alert and focused and maintains a level of physical readiness.
Marital breakup also negatively affects a firefighter's relationship with his or her children. Divorced firefighters may find themselves trying to manage their own personal distress while having to address new problematic behaviors of their children. This is a common response of children to marital conflict, especially when parents act out in front of them. Such behaviors may include disobeying or verbally disrespecting parents, truancy, poor academic performance, substance use, or running away. Additionally, because the fire service is more than 90% male and mothers are more often given custody of the children, firefighters are likely to be newly non-custodial fathers. These consequences only will increase a firefighter's feelings of distress, inadequacy and incompetence.
Furthermore, fire departments tend to be close-knit communities. For example, firefighters often marry the relatives or friends of co-workers. This can create a unique challenge for pre-divorce or divorced firefighters. It's very likely that a firefighter may be stationed in the same fire company or work in close proximity with a relative or close friend of his or her ex-spouse. The result may be a very tense and hostile environment that affects all assigned personnel. If this is the case for a fire company, the situation can't be ignored because it has the potential to damage morale among company members. Also, it will eventually carry over onto performance at emergency scenes.
There are several preventive interventions that a department might consider implementing that are designed to help members manage job and personal stress, thus reducing the risk of divorce. These interventions entail a problem- and emotion-focused approach to coping. Problem-focused coping activities are aimed at managing and improving the stressor. Emotion-focused coping activities attempt to reduce the emotional strain the stressor produces.
For example, begin an orientation session for the spouses and significant others of new recruits to help families gain an understanding of the job demands and stressors that firefighters encounter. Establish a department peer-counseling program, because firefighters often are more willing to talk to one of their own as opposed to a mental health professional. Initiate a mentoring program for rookie firefighters that assigns them to an experienced firefighter who demonstrates exemplary qualities at work, home and in the community. If properly designed and implemented, this program is invaluable in producing quality, well-adjusted department personnel.
It's important to implement a critical incident stress management program. Provide ongoing psycho-educational workshops about a variety of topics, such as stress and coping skills, depression, conflict resolution, team-building, parenting, and marital enrichment. Provide a resource for departmental personnel to obtain individual, marital or family counseling. A mental health professional should perform the last two interventions. Identify and establish a relationship with a mental health professional in the community who can provide such services and who has an understanding of fire service culture or who is willing to learn. The department might consider using its employee assistance program as a resource if possible.
Fire departments also should consider implementing a policy that prohibits relatives from being assigned to the same fire companies or supervise one another. Many departments have such a policy in an attempt to prevent one family from losing multiple members due to line-of-duty deaths or to avoid conflicts of interest. However, such a policy also can be very beneficial in eliminating potential conflict among co-workers due to divorce.
There are several actions that commanding officers can take to help department members struggling with the aftermath of divorce. In general, be supportive and offer assistance, but avoid giving marital advice. Routinely check in with the troubled firefighter. This should be done in a private setting, away from other personnel. This allows an officer to communicate concerns and support to the firefighter while maintaining ongoing awareness of the firefighter's distress level. Refer the firefighter to a peer counselor if your department has such a program. If the firefighter has an extremely stressful duty assignment, it might be helpful to temporarily transfer him or her to a less stressful position. However, it's absolutely necessary that the transfer is temporary and voluntary. If not, the firefighter may view the transfer as punishment, and this will only worsen his or her distress.
If the firefighter is exhibiting several negative reactions, refer him or her to a mental health professional. If all of the above actions fail to assist the firefighter in managing distress and job performance is negatively affected, the firefighter may need to take some extended leave time. This allows time to make the necessary adjustments without having to manage the stress of work. However, this action should be a last resort because most firefighters use their job as a source of healing, escape and self-esteem. Also, it's important that the commanding officer stay in touch with the individual to keep up with his or her progress toward emotional health.
Portia Rawles serves as an assistant professor in the Doctor of Psychology program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. Prior to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist, Rawles served 13 years with Norfolk (Va.) Fire and Paramedical Services, now Norfolk Fire and Rescue. She retired as a captain. Rawles continues to serve locally on the regional CISM team and consults with public safety agencies. Write to her at Regent University, School of Psychology and Counseling, 1000 University Drive, CRB 215, Virginia Beach, Va., 23464; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.