Firefighters and Divorce
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
Something I am very careful about when I teach, speak to groups, or submit articles to Fire Engineering, is that I only talk about subjects and topics which I feel that I know a great deal about. You will never read my take on high rise building fires, swift water rescue procedures, or managing departments with hundreds of firefighters. None of these are my area of expertise. However, when it comes to the subject of “Firefighters and Divorce,” I unfortunately have quite a bit of experience. Not only am I a divorced firefighter, I have two of them under my belt. And to add icing to the cake, following my second divorce I was involved in a long term relationship that ended in a tough break up that felt as bad as an actual divorce. It’s hard to believe I am writing about this because for a long time it was very difficult to even talk about this topic, let alone share it with total strangers. But the reason I have chosen to discuss this subject is because I see divorce destroy firefighters. Over the years I have had close friends and colleagues struggle through terrible break ups, most made it through, but some did not. If there is anything I can do to help prevent this from happening to even one person, then it’s certainly worth sharing my story and advice.
Sadly, divorce is a common occurrence affecting about half of married couples in the United States. However, firefighters are divorced at a much higher rate, some estimates report that it’s three times higher than average. There are several hypothetical causes for this elevated number of divorces in our profession. Some people believe it’s the many nights, weekends, and holidays that firefighters are scheduled to work. Others contribute it to the high number of “Type A” personalities in the fire service. My hypothesis is that those of us in public safety see the fragility of life very often and have a strong understanding of how quickly a life can come to an end. Because of this, we aren’t afraid to walk away from a struggling relationship and start over. (Keep in mind, I am not a psychologist nor is this opinion based on any credible science or data, only my personal thoughts.) But whatever the exact reason, there is no denying that we are getting divorced at a much higher rate than that of the general public.
Over the years I have seen really good firefighters spiral out of control during or shortly after a divorce, sometimes causing them to lose their jobs, and for others even more. The pain and confusion of a separation can cause what was once a logical, reasonable person to make terrible decisions. Often drugs and alcohol come into the equation and add another layer of problems for the individual involved. I’ve seen some really poor decisions made and sometimes the consequences are severe. My hope is that we can try to do a better job of supporting our employees and helping them get through a divorce with the least amount of damage to their career. There are many things that we as fire service leaders can do better and things that the firefighter who is going through the divorce can do as well. Here are a few suggestions:
Talk to the employee. As soon as you become aware of the situation try to have a face to face conversation with the firefighter. Make sure they know that you are available to talk in the future if needed. Give them support and encouragement. Tell them to call you, day or night if they need you.
Communicate with Company Officers: Be sure that the firefighter’s immediate supervisor is also observing their behavior and that they are on the lookout for any issues. The company officer should work closely with the employee to ensure that he or she is able to perform their job duties without any problems as well as provide assistance and support.
Offer Services: If the employee needs time off or a leave of absence, discuss this policy/procedure. Also, share information about your department’s EAP and ensure that if counseling and or psychological/behavioral services are needed, that they are accessible. Finally, if your agency has pastoral care or a department chaplain, share the contact information with the employee.
Brotherhood: Ensure that the employee knows that the department is with them and that they can count on their fellow firefighters for support. The department really is a second family, and in these situations this relationship can be very helpful. Make every effort to be there for each other.
Firefighters Going through a Divorce:
Focus on Your Children: Take care of your kids. No matter how bad the circumstances of your divorce may be and how much pain you may be dealing with, there is a very good chance that your kids are suffering even more. Do everything you can to support them.
Limit the Alcohol: If you don’t want to see a bad situation get even worse, then stay out of the local bar. Drinking in excess can and will lead to much bigger problems. Resist the urge to use alcohol as medication. Nothing positive can come from this behavior. I have seen terrible decisions made due to alcohol, some are irreversible.
Lean on Your Family: Your parents, siblings and extended family will be in your corner. During tough life challenges, we need the support of our families. Stick close to them during your divorce.
Stay Busy: Don’t stay inside and focus on your situation, get out and do something productive. Work out, take a class, take a vacation…anything to get yourself moving. As a firefighter, this may be a great time to attend a conference, or work on a new certification.
Value Your Job: Don’t let issues in your personal life bleed over into your career in the fire service and screw up your job. No matter how rough things may seem, they will improve. Firefighting is the best career in the world….don’t mess it up. If you need help…ask for it. There is no shame in seeking assistance from a mental health professional. Also, talk to the guys on your shift, they will help you get through it. Chances are, some of them have already been down the same path, get their advice and counsel.
For me to move forward, I got to the point where I accepted full responsibility for my failed relationships. I let go of the blame and anger and acknowledged that I made mistakes and no matter what the intricate details may have been, ultimately I took final ownership of the outcome and stopped carrying guilt and anger. My affiliation with the fire service has helped me through the toughest times in my life and I believe that we owe it to each other to continue this tradition for all future firefighters.
Joseph Kitchen, OFC, is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990 and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012 was named “Fire Officer of the Year” by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @bathtwpchief and visit his department’s website at www.bathtwpfd.com